Making Big Things Happen in Taiwan
Taiwan native Chih-han Yu is building a business that applies artificial intelligence to online advertising solutions and in the process destroying the myth that Taiwan may not be a good environment for startup companies.
Making Big Things Happen in TaiwanBy Hsiang-yi Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 595 )
He was the only Taiwanese named to the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders Class of 2016, joining the likes of Airbnb Inc. co-founder Joe Gebbia and Sam Altman, the president of well-known Silicon Valley tech-startup incubator Y Combinator.
He is the founder and CEO of technology company Appier Inc., which become in 2014 the first Taiwanese startup to receive investment from prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.
Appier, which leverages big data and artificial intelligence to help brands optimize their online advertising, has received US$30 million (about NT$980 million) in three rounds of fundraising. It has been celebrated by the venture capital crowd as one of the brightest new startups with a very promising future.
Armed with a master's degree from Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard, he devotes his time to his business – when he is not sleeping, he's working.
He is 37-year-old Taiwan native Chih-han Yu, who started a business in the United States and then brought it back to his home country. He now does business with companies around the world and has drawn widespread attention.
"People say I'm too optimistic, but I have always believed that we can still be leading the change of the world from here," Yu says, in his typical straightforward manner.
From Computer Novice to AI Expert
Yu can only laugh when recalling how far he's come. Like many Taiwanese high school students preparing to take their college entrance exams, Yu was a little lost. He relied on university rankings and his parents' advice when he filled out his preferred universities and departments of study and somehow ended up in National Taiwan University's Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering.
"The first day I reported to NTU, I had to register my new student mailbox account, and I didn't even have a clue where the "B" was on the keyboard. I only found it after an older student pointed it out," Yu remembers. He was anything but a naturally gifted student, his grades among the lowest in his class his first two years in school.
It was only in his junior year when he came across pattern recognition technology – still in its early stages at the time – that he discovered the infinite possibilities of algorithms and artificial intelligence, kindling his passion for research.
He began scouring studies on the topic and took the initiative to serve as a research assistant to professors in the department working in related fields, even helping them write papers. Because of his passion and drive, Yu quickly amassed extensive knowledge and tangible research results, helping him pique the interest of Stanford University after graduating even if his grades did not stand out.
Once at Stanford, Yu encountered a much more competitive environment but was undaunted, his enthusiasm for research motivating him to search for new opportunities.
"I printed out a thick file with information on my background and research results and took it to the office of every professor whose research was in some way related to AI. In my broken English, I told each one I wanted to do research with them," Yu recalls.
He was rejected more times that he can count but eventually developed a relationship with Andrew Ng, a leading scholar in the artificial intelligence field who was one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2013.
Appier CEO Chih-han Yu (center), COO Winnie Lee (left), and CTO Chia-yung Su (right) have expanded the business to 11 Asian cities. it has become a star in startup circles.
"I feel a little embarrassed for the professor to put it like this, but rather than 'choosing each other out of admiration,' it would be more accurate to say we really had no other choice," Yu says with his infectious laugh.
Yu explains that artificial intelligence had yet to become a prominent field of study at the time and Ng was just starting at the university, so faced with extremely limited resources they teamed up to do groundbreaking research in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Bumpy Entrepreneurial Beginning
Yu's entrepreneurial path has been just as haphazard.
While pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard University, Yu grew close to his two roommates, including Chia-yung Su, who is now Appier's chief technology officer.
“At that time, they were in the dorm talking passionately every day about starting a business that would change the world. I was more dedicated to research, so I didn't really give it much thought," Yu says.
Yet after Yu's roommates finally decided to launch a new company, the first decision they made was to ask Yu to serve as CEO.
In fact, the demands on Yu were not exactly new because while he was at Stanford and Harvard his research was project-driven.
"I had to submit plans, raise funds, find manpower, produce groundbreaking results and then present and publicize the findings," Yu says of his familiarity with the processes involving in running a company, to the point of being like a "serial entrepreneur"
Infected by his roommates' enthusiasm, he figured "why not" give it a shot, and the three pooled the equivalent of about NT$1.5 million to start them on their entrepreneurial path in the United States.
They focused on using artificial intelligence to develop several types of social network games, but the idea never took hold. Faced with cost and manpower limitations, they then decided to relocate the business back to their home country of Taiwan.
When CommonWealth Magazine first reported on their venture two years ago, their story was similar to the experiences of many in the startup community – getting a break when it was not expected. Yu was advised by the owner of a game company, "with such strong artificial intelligence technology, you might be better off trying to help us place advertising more efficiently." Seeing the huge potential demand for internet marketing, Yu quickly transformed the company's direction.
"I'll always remember when the company got its first order. It was a NT$200,000 order. We were on cloud nine for the whole day!" he recalls. Yu says the company had little revenue in its first three years leading up to that moment and what ultimately helped him get through the down times was the belief that "even if we failed a seventh, eighth or ninth time, we would succeed the next time."
Though NT$200,000 was not much, it signaled that the team's core technology had finally found a market.
"He has the spirit of the first-generation Taiwanese pioneers who ventured into the world with a suitcase, unafraid of taking risks or failing. It's the key to success and the quality that many young Taiwanese entrepreneurs most need," observes Universal Cement Corporation Jack Hou, who once served as the head of Harvard's Taiwanese Student Association and knows Yu and Su well.
Breaking the 'Hard to Succeed in Taiwan' Myth
Today, Appier is headquartered in Taipei, but it also has sales offices in Singapore, Tokyo, Sydney, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, Hong Kong, Mumbai, New Delhi, Jakarta and Seoul. It boasts more than 500 prominent brands and distributors around the world as clients, breaking the conventional wisdom of many critics that "Taiwan's startup environment is poor, making it hard to succeed."
"To be honest, the internet is so well-developed now that national boundaries have become blurred. At least in terms of internet and tech startups, I think it's absolutely not a problem to set up an operations headquarters in Taiwan," Yu says bluntly.
"People here should be less critical of themselves and have more confidence."
Yu has traveled extensively around Asia in recent years to get a feel for different markets, and he feels that every country in the world has its strengths and weaknesses. Though Taiwan admittedly has its limitations, it has a rich pool of software talent, convenient transportation links, sound basic infrastructure and a diversified domestic consumer market, all making the country a perfect stepping stone for startups to explore Asian and global markets, Yu believes.
He suggested, however, that young entrepreneurs could be more ambitious. In the world of the future, where boundaries between nations and industrial sectors will be increasingly blurred, Yu asserts that as long as entrepreneurs are not afraid of failure and willing to boldly innovate in creating something unique, "you can of course do great things in Taiwan."
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier