I met Qingxi Huang (also known as Sunny), a new and intriguing player in Israel's biomedical industry, the day before the tariffs imposed by US president Donald Trump on Chinese goods, and the retaliatory measures by the Chinese, came into force, starting a trade war between the two economic giants. Qingxi is chairman and controlling shareholder of ICB Biotechnology Investments, which invests in Israeli medical companies with potential in the Chinese market.
The young Chinese businessman, aged 44, whose wealth is estimated at between $500 million and $1 billion, finds it hard to conceal his feelings about the trade war. "There's a similarity between the Chinese government and the Israeli government. They both refuse to surrender and fight for what they believe in. I am convinced beyond doubt that the Chinese, as soon as national pride and national interests become involved, will not surrender and will not back down, and so a trade war will indeed break out. And this trade war will hurt the US much more than China."
Why will the US be hurt more?
"I have a public company there, and so I travel to the US every month or two, and I see that everyday life in the US cannot be sustained without imports from China, from clothing to food and transport. By contrast, in the past few years the Chinese economy has grown rapidly, and the Chinese have developed substantial production capabilities.
"Today, our standard of living in China is not very different from that in the US, so that the Chinese market, unlike the American market, can supply its own needs. Perhaps China buys US high-tech, but its market is not dependent in everyday life on imports from the US. So a trade war will have very little impact on the Chinese, certainly relative to the way it will affect the Americans. Had a trade war broken out ten years ago, China might perhaps have been prepared to negotiate, but now it is much stronger."
President Trump explains that the justification for his measures is the imbalance in trade between the two countries.
"I'm a businessman, and I compare it to a situation in the business world. Let's suppose that China is a large commercial company and the US is another. It's normal for two commercial companies to find themselves in conflict and even to quarrel, but the solution has to be as in the business world: the two leaders should solve the problems together, quietly, instead of involving the entire world in a noisy global dispute."
So what will happen, in your opinion?
"Since Trump has already declared war, the Chinese leadership cannot surrender, because the Chinese people won't accept that. They'll say, 'How could you submit?' So the leadership has no option but to go to war. The war will escalate, because Trump has already announced that he will not make do with the $50 billion of tariffs planned initially, but after a certain time I think that the two leaders will find a way of solving this, and one of the sides will take the first step and decide to back down from its position."
And which side will that be?
"To judge from past experience, it will have to be the Americans, because the communist leadership of China will never give in to the Americans. They simply can't do such a thing in front of the Chinese people."
And how does this affect you personally?
"It strengthens my decision to operate in Israel. There's a mathematical equation," he laughs, "that China plus Israel equals America. Because the US has both its own market and technology. We Chinese have the big markets, and Israel has the technology, so together it makes a good link-up, much better that the link between China and the US. In the end, China and the US will be competitors, but China and Israel will never be competitors, and so it's better for them to go together."
"In the end, we'll float the company"
Qingxi, who made his fortune in China by rehabilitating biotech and pharma companies, says that he aspires to build in Israel "an Alibaba that will bring to China every possible medical equipment technology from Israel." For the time being, he has got as far as veteran medical equipment company BPS, which hasn't really gone anywhere, but which holds technology that is meant to facilitate early detection of blood vessel blockages that are liable to lead to a heart attack, and it is also listed on the stock exchange, making it possible to introduce new activity into it fairly easily.
Last October, Qingxi acquired control of BPS (64.7%, fully diluted), and even before that invested in three other Israeli companies: Wear2b, which has developed a non-invasive sugar-level test; BestBrain, which has developed a treatment for Alzheimer's disease using neurofeedback headsets; and RMDY, which does digital health management. In total, he has so far invested in Israel $6.5 million in the four companies he has acquired, and he has brought them all together under BPS, which has meanwhile changed its name to ICB Biotechnology Investments Ltd. (TASE: ICB).
ICB will be a quasi-holding company investing in Israeli medical companies with the aim of bringing them to China in the framework of common ventures, helping them mature by obtaining approvals from the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA), building production facilities, marketing activity, and making them accessible to the Chinese capital market.
How much money are you planning to invest in Israel and in how many companies do you think you will invest?
"Our typical investment is from $500,000 to $3 million. We hope to invest in hundreds of companies in the next three years."
That sounds very ambitious.
"I want to use ICB as a platform for bringing Israel medical equipment technology to China. In the end, we'll float the company. As far as we understand, Israeli medical equipment companies are not very successful in penetrating China. The Chinese capital market believes in Israeli technologies, but it has no interest in investing just in technology; it's looking for something more established. To make an analogy with the real estate industry, they don't want to invest in land without construction; they want to invest in a house, so we're building this house. This is also the reason why we chose to work through a platform that combines several companies together, rather than bringing Israeli companies separately."
In which companies will you invest?
"We'll invest in any Israeli company we think can be of interest to the Chinese market. The companies will set up joint ventures with us in China in which the Israelis bring the technology and we bring the money, the experience, and eventually the connection with the Chinese capital market. Keep in mind that businesses are based on trust, and as of now, these young Israeli companies don't have this trust from the Chinese capital market. They aren't sure that the land will really become a house and that the technology will become a company with approvals, production, and marketing."
So the companies will become Chinese companies.
Meanwhile, you have acquired four companies here. Which of them do you see as candidates for the first success?
"Let me make clear what I mean by success. I'm not talking about one company; I'm talking about a group of companies under our platform. It will be hard for a single company to penetrate markets and almost impossible to succeed by itself. But if I can combine them and win the market's esteem, they have a chance to succeed and the market will come through an IPO or in a different form."
With your plan and the money you are bringing, why isn't the share price going up?
"The reason is very simple: we're a new company and we announced the investments two weeks ago. Before that, we were busy changing the company's structure. In any case, the share price isn't very important to me. Establishing the platform is important to me."
Could it be connected to something bigger - Israeli suspicion of people coming from China? For example, look at what happens when Chinese companies try to buy insurance companies here. As of now, not one has crossed the regulatory barrier.
"I agree with your analysis. There is suspicion and caution because they don't know us."
"Success demands toughness"
Qingxi encounters suspicion in his many visits to Israel and his meetings with leading high figures in Israeli high tech. Since first visiting Israel 18 months ago, he has been here six times, met 300 companies, and made contact with several of the most influential people in high tech, such as Yehuda Zisapel, for example, about whom he says, "This is somebody who has contributed so much to the startup nation. I have great respect for him."
Another thing he did was to organize a huge conference in cooperation with the Chinese government in his native city of Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, to which he brought 100 Israeli companies. "I didn't expect each of them to succeed immediately in China. This was part of the process of building trust."
Qingxi's no-nonsense businesslike appearance is softened by the bracelets he wears on his right arm. "I'm a Buddhist," he explains. He still lives in Changsha. The Bloomberg website says that he was one of the pioneering young entrepreneurs in the province in 1994, and has great esteem and many prizes for his work.
He comes from an educated family - his father, mother, and sister are all doctors - but a poor one. "I didn't realize it then," he says, "but today it's clear to me that growing up in a poor rural area was an important experience. If you grow up in tough surroundings, it makes you tough, and success demands toughness. You Israelis have to be in the army for two or three years. I feel like I was in the army for 15 years."
Despite his family's situation, as part of the popular Maoist values, his parents used to go into poorer neighborhoods and help people there. "The idea is that if you have an education, you can't stay where you are and do nothing. You are responsible for helping people who are weaker than you are," he explains.
With the help of a loan from his grandmother on his mother's side, he went to college and studied mathematics, but did not finish. "After two years, I realized that being a mathematician and making money from it was very difficult. I felt that I had to go into business so that I would be able to do something with my life."
The next stage was opening an advertising agency that conducted campaigns for companies, where he says, "I had a little luck, because one of my clients was Hunan TV," which was then "the worst television station in China," as he calls it, but is now one of the two biggest Chinese-language television stations, broadcasting in most parts of China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as in North America, Japan, Australia, and Europe.
From being a service provider, Qingxi became a senior executive and after investing his money in the station, a part-owner. "They wanted to change their business model from pure propaganda to a model of making money. I was part of that strategy, and with all due modesty, I must say that I contributed a great deal to this revolution. It's been 15 years already since I was there and I still miss the people from the station. To this day I get invited to all the events and parties there."
"To understand Israel better"
He decided to leave after 10 years, among other things because he was not allowed to invest more in the station as a result of the government policy restricting investors to providing sponsorships for programs. "In addition, I also felt that I had to do something of my own not so closely associated with the government sector (the media in China are controlled by the provincial governments)," he says.
I understand that you still had excellent connections with the government, which also helped you financially with the large conference you held for Israeli companies not long ago.
"It's true that in the media field, a very close connection was forged with government people, but I have to say that as soon as I started out in business, I took a stand against bribing a government official. You know that bribery is customary in China, mainly with the government, but I decided not to do it. The good connections I had in Hunan are due to the fact that I saved companies and created profitable businesses in an area of great importance to the government."
The first thing that he did was to buy a company named Anson that went bankrupt. Anson made an ointment for burns (the company is now one of Qingxi's strongest companies). "If you start a medical business from scratch, you have to undergo all of the development stages, which takes time," he explains. "Here was a company that on the one hand had a product that was selling, and on the other hand went bankrupt. So they must have been doing something right and also something wrong. For me, it was better to buy a company like that and turn it around than to start a company from scratch."
You looked for a shortcut, just like you did when you entered Israel via a stock exchange shell. It looks like this method is very common among Chinese investors.
"True, and I also continued this method. In 2005-2010, every year for five years, I acquired more companies in trouble in the medical sector and turned all of them around within 6-12 months."
The company on which Qingxi made most of his money and because of which he is also investing in Israel is Hunan Honghao Jiyin, a genetics company. From an investment of only $500,000, the company's market cap grew to $4 billion in three years, "and I made a lot of money from this success," he says.
The list of companies in which he is involved or was involved is a long one. Worthy of note is one that is that is comparable to what he is trying to establish here in Israel (much bigger, of course): Central Bio-MD Valley Technology, a Chinese holding company, in which he serves as president.
He has been on the line to Israel for the past 18 months. The first person he met here was Andrew Zhang, who has lived in Israel for many years. Qingxi appointed Zhang CEO of ICB. "We discovered that we shared the same dream," Qingxi says in explaining his appointment of Zhang, a former advisor to companies such as IDB Group and Netafim. Another recruit was a friend of Zhang's, Eitan Segal, former head of the foreign policy division in the Prime Minister's Office and now VP business development at ICB. "We have no one here whom we sent from the headquarters in China," Qingxi says about the appointments in the company. "All of the people I met only recently and they are local."
It's very different from the usual practice of Chinese companies that acquire a company. They usually send their own people.
"True. I did it because I know that we have to be an Israeli company, and we'll also understand Israel better this way. This is our strategy."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 23, 2018
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