Recruiting young in China to find the next big idea
As he discusses technology, Stephen Bell, with his shaved head, glasses and dark Levi’s, channels Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs.
“Name some companies that have changed the world.” Bell tells the crowd at a local university, writing their replies in chalk on a blackboard. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook. “And who created them? That’s right, students, just like you.”But one student meekly disagrees, noting that the companies were started by entrepreneurs in America. “They have a different culture,” he says. “Not like here in China.” Bell, a venture capitalist, wants to change that perception.
Like a high-powered talent scout, Bell, the co-founder of Trilogy VC, tours China’s top universities, seeking f ledgling entrepreneurs. Each year, he offers millions of dollars to young students, who often have just a kernel of an idea. It’s not just early-stage investments. It’s early-early stage.
“I’m not looking for revenue f low, and I’m not interested in user numbers,” he said. “I’m looking for doers.” On a chilly day in early November, Bell was surrounded by f ive dozen students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, the country’s top science and technology university, often referred to as China’s MIT. It was the last day of ChinaStars, a marathon programming competition he hosts four times a year.
At the outset, students were given 60 seconds to present an idea. Teams were formed, and they had 72 hours to create an actual program or application. “Just focus on doing one thing well,” Bell told them. Over the three days, he and other mentors circulated, suggesting new approaches and offering insights.
This was no idle exercise. Within days, the initial projects were presented, and several teams were awarded $5 000. Some eventually secured additional f inancing