Top Chinese conglomerate set to shop for Israeli start-up tech

Officials of China’s HNA Group have already signed one partnership deal with an Israeli firm – and many more are in the offing, sources in the company say

(Foreground L to R) Asaf Gendler, CEO of Israeli start-up Bidflyer, signs a partnership agreement with Kevin Yu, COO of Hainan Eco-Tech Group (Courtesy)
(Foreground L to R) Asaf Gendler, CEO of Israeli start-up Bidflyer, signs a partnership agreement with Kevin Yu, COO of Hainan Eco-Tech Group (Courtesy)

Top executives of China’s HNA Group, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, will be arriving in Israel in early May to shop for investments in tech firms, sources in the company told The Times of Israel. The decision to invest in Israeli tech start-ups will follow the inauguration of the Tel Aviv-Beijing route by Hainan Airlines on April 28. Hainan is a division of HNA.

What may have whetted HNA’s appetite for Israeli tech is a strategic agreement the company recently signed with Bidflyer, an Israeli-developed platform which provides an online space for airlines to sell off their hard-to-sell seats on flights via a bidding process. According to the sources, HNA plans to use Bidflyer to enable travelers from Asia to buy unsold seats on Hainan flights – including those to and from Tel Aviv – thus opening up air travel to millions in Asia who might otherwise not have had the opportunity to travel abroad.

Other Chinese conglomerates, including Fosun, Alibaba, and Baidu, have made investments in Israeli start-ups, but HNA’s activity in Israel could eclipse them all. Among Chinese conglomerates, HNA stands out as a serial acquirer; since June 2015, the company has spent an estimated $30 billion on mergers and acquisitions.

Among its investments: airport luggage handler Swissport International, electronics distributor Ingram Micro, Irish aircraft lessor Avolon Holdings, Brazilian airline Blue Angel and US-based Red Lion Hotels. It also purchased the landmark Thomson Reuters building in Canary Wharf in London, and this year announced a strategic partnership with Uber, leading a Series B fundraising round for the company.

All told, HNA has over the past five years either purchased or become an major investor in over 300 entities, many outside of China.

Travel has been Hainan’s biggest area. But it has expanded into real estate, finance (including insurance, investment banking, and leasing), logistics, online retailing, and more.

The company will be searching out Israeli tech in any and all of these areas, the sources said, and with the company’s heavy international investment strategy, partnerships or outright buyouts of Israeli start-ups are likely.

Hainan Airlines was founded in 1993 and has grown to be China’s largest independent airline, with a fleet of over 1100 aircraft. The airline will run three weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Beijing, transferring from there to other major cities in China, such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.

Yuval Golan, director of advisory group Unique 1 Asia, has consulted with HNA on various deals. According to Golan, HNA is interested in Israeli tech in a number of areas – including big data, smart cities, artificial intelligence, e-commerce, agricultural technology, and more.

“In Hainan province, where HNA is based, there are two economic forums and one think tank exclusively dedicated to developing business ties with Israel,” said Golan. “These bodies are supported financially by the local government and the Israeli consulate in southern China, and we have arranged for them to meet with dozens of Israeli companies in recent months. We are hopeful that something positive will emerge from these meetings.”

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