Four unicorn exits in 2018 and nine over the last eight years: That’s quite an impressive resume for a CVC. But don’t expect Qualcomm Ventures’ Global Head Quinn Li (or anyone else in the group, for that matter) to be satisfied. After almost 14 years at Qualcomm Ventures and three at its helm, he says they’re just getting started.
We sat down with Quinn to get to know more about this engineer turned venture capitalist. We spoke with him about his switch to the VC world, the keys to partnering with the right portfolio companies, and what determines success.
QCV: You started off as an engineer. How did you go from engineering to VC?
Quinn: I went to school for engineering, and worked as an engineer for about five years. But almost from the beginning, I knew engineering wouldn’t be a long-term career.
QCV: How did you know?
Quinn: It was never something I felt passionate about. I decided to go to business school, and it was there that I got some exposure to the venture capital world. At Cornell, we had a student run venture fund, and we actually got to invest real money. It was a very small amount but real nonetheless. We learned how to evaluate companies and invest.
QCV: What brought you to Qualcomm Ventures?
Quinn: I’d known about Qualcomm for a long time. I studied digital communications and part of the curriculum were books written by Qualcomm’s founders — Jacobs, Viterbi. After graduating, I actually applied for a couple of engineering positions at Qualcomm — but I didn’t get them.
Then, post business school, I heard that Qualcomm had a ventures group. I asked a friend to introduce me to the person who was formerly in my position, and I guess you could say the rest is history. Or kismet, perhaps.
QCV: You’ve been here for almost 14 years. What’s made you stay?
Quinn: Qualcomm is a great company. I joined the ventures group almost at the very beginning, and I’ve had a hand in building this team, and watching the group go from a very small organization to an internationally recognized corporate venture group that continues to grow and evolve. I love the work I do. It’s been a really fun journey.
QCV: Tell me about your team.
Quinn: I love our team. It’s a very smart group of people. We’re a very diverse group. And despite the fact that we’re spread out across the globe, we’re a cohesive unit.
QCV: What determines success?
Quinn: At the end of the day, it’s how well your investment works out. It’s about the big exits. In this business, you’re defined by the companies you invest in and how well they do. So picking a company is very important. In addition, our success is also determined by the value we are adding to Qualcomm and its ecosystem.
QCV: How do you determine which companies to invest in?
Quinn: My number one criterion is the people. The team is very important. Absolutely.
I also look at whether the product, or the thing the company is trying to sell, has a unique value proposition. The validation of that is either the business has revenue, or if it’s early stage, that it solves a unique problem in the marketplace.
QCV: What’s an example of that?
Quinn: Ring, which was acquired by Amazon last year. The company makes a video doorbell. Why do people buy it? Because it solves unique use cases. You can see when a package gets dropped off at your door. You can use it for security. People buy it because they find a value in it.
QCV: Any other criteria for investing?
Quinn: I look at whether there’s a clear business model. Can this business make money? I also research the competitive marketplace. Is the company a leader in the space? Can this company capture market share? Along with the team and the value prop, those are probably the important criteria when you look at investments.
QCV: Do you have a favorite success story?
Quinn: I don’t think there’s any one company I’d single out. Last year we had four unicorn exits: 99 Taxis, Ring, Mobike, and Xiaomi. It was a huge year, and I’m really proud of what we accomplished.
We spend a lot of time with our companies. We watch them mature, and ultimately, if they go ring the bell on the NYSE or the NASDAQ, and we’ve been a part of their journey in some way, that’s awesome.
I’m excited to see what 2019 will bring!
Learn more about Quinn Li and Qualcomm Ventures.