How Microsoft Contributed to the Rapid Growth of China’s Silicon Valley in High Tech Clusters

Excerpt from an article published in The New York Times.

“Robert O. Work (veteran defense official) asked his A.I. dudes, “O.K., you guys are the smartest guys in A.I., right?”

No, the dudes told him, “the smartest guys are at Facebook and Google,” Mr. Work recalled in an interview.

Now, increasingly, they’re also in China. The United States no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology (referring to artificial intelligence).”

Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) – Microsoft’s fundamental research arm in the Asia Pacific region, was founded in Beijing China in 1998. MSRA has published over 1,500 papers for top international journals and conferences. MSRA was named the “hottest computer lab” by MIT Technology Review in 2004.

As described in Wikipedia: MSRA operates under a mission of advancing the state of the art in computing through a combination of basic and applied research. More than 300 research results have been transferred to Microsoft products, including Windows, Office, Bing, Xbox, Kinect, and Windows Phone.

Kai-Fu Lee (李开复), Founder of Sinovation Ventures

The first Managing Director of Microsoft Research China was Mr. Kai-Fu Lee – innovator of the world’s first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system, known as Sphinx. No mention of MSRA is complete without referencing to Mr. Lee.

In year 2005, Mr. Lee moved on to Google as the Founding President of Google China. And in 2009, Mr. Lee founded Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital that invest in start-ups in China and in the U.S., at seed, Series A and Series B stages. Nearly half of Sinovation Ventures recent investments have been in artificial intelligence.

Source of portrait photo: Mr. Lee’s LinkedIn profile

Ya-Qin Zhang (张亚勤), President of Baidu

Mr. Kai-Fu Lee played a pivotal role in convincing Mr. Ya-Qin Zhang‘s return to China. An IEEE academician, Mr. Zhang was appointed as Managing Director of MSRA in 2001, and led the R&D of Microsoft’s Mobile and Embedded products from 2004-2006. In 2006, Mr. Zhang was appointed as Microsoft’s Corp. Vice President and the Chairman of Microsoft Asia-Pacific R&D Group to lead Microsoft’s entire R&D efforts in Asia Pacific. Besides the shipping of WinCE and Windows Mobile 5.0, Mr. Zhang also involved in the development of cloud computing (today’s Azure) and big data platforms.

Mr. Zhang left Microsoft in 2014, and joined Baidu as the President.

Source of portrait photo: Mr. Zhang’s LinkedIn profile

Qi Lu (陆奇), Group President and COO of Baidu

Another notable talent loss of Microsoft to Baidu, took place earlier this year when Mr. Qi Lu joined Baidu as Group President and COO for Baidu’s AI push. Mr. Lu, an AI expert, holds a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon (the same university that Mr. Kai-Fu Lee did his PhD) and has over 40 U.S. patents in his name. He most recently held the position of Executive VP of Applications & Services Group at Microsoft, and led the core development of Bing search.

Source of portrait photo: Mr. Lu’s LinkedIn profile

Jian Wang (王坚), Group CTO of Alibaba

Mr. Wang is former Executive VP at MSRA. He joined MSRA with an idea to perfect a natural form of human-machine interaction. This idea was turned into the invention of Digital Ink Technology, which distinguishes the Tablet PC from notebook computers.

In 2009, Mr. Wang joined Alibaba as Group CTO and Chief Architect of Alibaba Cloud (Aliyun).

Source of portrait photo: gettyimages.com

Bin Lin (林斌), Co-Founder of Xiaomi

In year 2000, Mr. Kai-Fu Lee convinced Mr. Bin Lin‘s return to China from Microsoft HQ in Seattle, to join Microsoft Research China as R&D Manager. Later, Mr. Lin assisted Mr. Ya-Qin Zhang to establish MSRA, and held the position of Engineering Director. His R&D contribution in Microsoft includes Windows Vista and IE 8.

When Mr. Kai-Fu Lee left Microsoft for Google China in 2005, Mr. Lin followed suit. However, when Mr. Lee left Google in 2009 to venture into VC business, Mr. Lin joined Mr. Jun Lei as the Co-Founder of Xiaomi. Xiaomi is the world’s fifth largest smartphone maker.

Source of portrait photo: Mr. Lin’s LinkedIn profile

Hong-Jiang Zhang (张宏江), CEO of Kingsoft

Mr. Hong-Jiang Zhang is a former Managing Director of Microsoft Advanced Technology Center (ATC), as well as CTO of Microsoft Asia-Pacific R&D Group.

As described in Wikipedia: A researcher in media computing, more specifically in video and image analysis, search and browsing, over the years, Dr Zhang has authored four books, over 350 scientific papers, and holds 62 US patents. He has been elected Fellow of IEEE and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and won the “2008 Asian American Engineers of the Year” award. He is also the recipient of 2010 IEEE Computer Society Technical Achievement Awards.

While with MSRA, he led efforts to research in media computing, data mining and web search, natural language computing, and distributed systems. In 2011, Dr. Hong-Jiang Zhang left Microsoft and joined Kingsoft as CEO.

Source of portrait photo: Mr. Zhang’s LinkedIn profile

Alumni of High Tech Geniuses

This post is not meant as the definitive guide to MSRA alumni’s impact in China’s high tech arena. The figures described above are probably just a tip of an iceberg when it comes to former Microsoft researchers who are leaving an impact in China. Many of them were once, residing in US, and later armed with them a strong research background in computer science to bloom the high tech software innovation in China. This could probably be the reason why we do not really see Chinese CEO among the large corporates in Silicon Valley.

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