PE searches for Asia's next internet giant

Asia has not yet spawned a Facebook or Twitter – a large internet service that has really gone global. That’s partly because the huge economic and cultural variation within the region makes cross-border plays more difficult. And while Asia has more internet users than any other continent in absolute terms, the penetration rate (as a percentage of the population) is still the second-lowest in the world, according to data from Internet World Stats.

Nonetheless, some internet companies are building momentum. Japan-based Line, for example, a free mobile chat service that competes against the price-driven SMS, is immensely popular in Thailand and Indonesia and can now be described as genuinely pan-Asian, according to Vincent Lauria, managing partner at Golden Gate Ventures.“I can see Line slowly replacing SMS in Southeast Asia and becoming a giant global platform that replaces text messages in the US.”
China is home to several ambitious behemoths that could develop a global presence.

Alibaba, an ecommerce and online payments business valued somewhere between $40 billion and $100 billion, has made some overseas acquisitions and is developing a mobile operating system with smartphone makers to compete with Google’s Android. Its arch-rival is Tencent (market cap $60 billion), which recently expanded its WeChat, a social messaging application, into Singapore and Indonesia and has also bought into US-based online gaming companies. Meanwhile NASDAQ-listed Baidu, the $30 billion Google equivalent, bought the online video unit of PPStream for $370 million.

Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba have already proven they can be just as big as the top American internet giants. They are all Chinese companies but slowly expanding internationally.

Chris Evdemon, partner, Innovation Works

“Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba have already proven that they can be just as big as the top American internet giants,” says Chris Evdemon, partner at Innovation Works, an incubator and early-stage investor in China start-ups (Facebook’s market cap is currently about $67 billion). “They are all Chinese companies but slowly expanding internationally.”

As for India, the country may be synonymous with software expertise, but its internet user base is just 100 million, or 8 percent of the population (the equivalent figure in China is 42 percent; in the US, 78 percent).