Zoom investment shines light on the woman behind Li Ka-shing’s tech bets

Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s undisputed dealmaking king, has made about £30bn in investments over the past decade, spanning retail, energy and infrastructure. His sons Victor and Richard have carved out their own reputations for sealing billion-dollar buyouts around the globe.

But the elder Mr Li’s investment in videoconferencing group Zoom, whose market capitalisation has ballooned by $47.9bn since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in January, has shone a light on another star investor connected to the family — one who has often remained in the shadows.

Solina Chau, Mr Li’s long-term companion and head of a group that invests his money, has for years been the force behind many of the technology bets credited to Hong Kong’s “superman”, as 91-year-old Mr Li is known.

Horizons Ventures, which Ms Chau co-founded in 2002, invests Mr Li’s personal wealth and does not raise funds from outside investors. Mr Li, who is one of Hong Kong’s richest men, shoulders the risk but the returns go to the Li Ka Shing Foundation, his charitable trust.

The Zoom investment is just the latest in a long list of Ms Chau’s big-name, high-return deals, primarily in the US and Israel.

Horizons Ventures was an early investor in artificial intelligence group DeepMind, now owned by Google; voice-recognition group Siri, before it was purchased by Apple; communications group Skype; and more recently Australian payments company Airwallex.

$5.6bn Value of Horizons Ventures’ holding in Zoom

It also put money into Facebook, music-streaming company Spotify, messaging application Slack and plant-based meat substitute start-up Impossible Foods.

“[Ms Chau] has a long list of companies that have made a lot of money but you’re not going to hear about it in the same way you hear about others,” said one finance industry professional who has dealt with Horizons, noting that most of its deals have simply been labelled “Li Ka-shing investments”.

Since 2012, the group has led more than $1bn in early-stage investment rounds, including cash from others that have invested alongside Horizons Ventures, according to data compiled by Dealogic. Many of the deals are private and the size of many investments have not been disclosed. Horizons does not report its returns.

Horizons’ Zoom holdings have drawn a flurry of attention this year, surging in value to more than $5.6bn from initial investments totalling $8.5m in 2013 and 2014. Despite personally striking the deal with Zoom founder Eric Yuan, Ms Chau has rarely been mentioned in coverage of the investment.

“I first met Eric over coffee at Starbucks at Palo Alto University Avenue, [where] he shared his challenges and his determination to bring the world of enterprise communications on to the cloud,” Ms Chau said via her communications team. She declined an FT request for an interview.

Horizons’ access to some of the top start-ups in Silicon Valley started with two $60m investments in Facebook in 2007 and 2008 that produced a fivefold return when the US social media group went public in 2012.

Close ties to the Li family’s Cheung Kong business empire, one of Asia’s largest conglomerates, have afforded Ms Chau introductions to emerging tech stars.

One investor who knows Horizons said: “They have always been very low key but have made really some really good investments. They can be [low key] because they don’t need to raise funds.”

People who know Ms Chau describe her as an energetic dealmaker closely involved with the investments the company makes. But they also say she has sought to stay out of the limelight and avoid Li family politics.

The investment in Zoom has been hailed as one of the best venture capital deals in the coronavirus era in terms of return, as people have turned in droves to video calls instead of meeting in person.

Before the crisis, Zoom expected annual sales would rise about 46 per cent for fiscal 2021 but Singular Research analyst Christopher Sakai is now projecting growth of more than 180 per cent. “So it is fair to say that it is a big beneficiary of the pandemic,” he said.

Ms Chau, 59, met Mr Li while working on a property project in Beijing in the early 1990s, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the Hong Kong media she is often referred to simply as Mr Li’s companion. But her role as a director of the Li Ka Shing Foundation — which the tycoon says he considers a “third son” — hints at her importance.

Ms Chau’s first major deal backed by Mr Li was with Chinese media group Tom.com. Her investment in the company and its initial public offering in 2000 made her one of Hong Kong’s richest women.

But Ms Chau’s high-profile successes have often been overshadowed by the big-ticket mega deals favoured by Mr Li and his sons, including last year’s £4.6bn deal for the UK’s largest listed pubs and brewery group, Greene King.

People who know Ms Chau say she is charming but also a tough negotiator. She has the reputation of being self-effacing and a loyal business partner for the companies in which she invests.

“We are always thinking about the next normal, and eager to be a part of the founders’ journey to make it happen,” she said.