Asia Catches .com Fever

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    Instead, Wong became something much more important--a computer geek, who joined Singapore's National Computer Board. Cheah returned to Malaysia and took a job at Solectron, a technology assembler in Penang. Then came the Internet explosion, and the two M.I.T. graduates, who had remained friends, saw the light. Says Cheah: "We figured this was something we were born to do."

    Cheah raised $18.5 million from family, friends and associates, then launched AsiaTech Ventures, the region's first venture-capital company geared exclusively toward Net investments. In Singapore, Wong quit his job to set up SilkRoute Holdings, a pioneering Web-design company, which in turn created Advanced Manufacturing Online (AMO), an online component-exchange system that matches users and suppliers. AMO has sales of nearly $5 million. When Cheah learned what his former schoolmate was up to, AsiaTech put $1 million into AMO. It was the first Asian Internet venture for either man, and coming only a month after the start of the Asian financial crisis, it looked especially risky.

    Today that leap of faith seems inspired. Investment firms Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and others sank $20 million into AMO last July, and Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li paid $27 million for 25% of SilkRoute, whose main asset is 38% of AMO. No matter that neither company has made a profit. Few Net companies do, at least yet. But Cheah, 34, has no intention of selling out. "I'm waiting for a much bigger payday," he says.

    Successful regional IPO floats would confirm AsiaTech's reputation as one of the region's premier venture-capital firms. Cheah and his 20 fellow dealmakers have spent $75 million--half of their total fund--on Internet companies in Asia and the U.S. In retrospect, the Asian financial crisis appears to have actually helped the business. "Everyone else was too distracted fixing problems to think about venture capital," Cheah says. There is a shortage of good prospects, however. Cheah and his backers reckon that they discard about 95% of the 300 or so business plans they see in a year. Nonetheless, Cheah predicts, "The number of Asian Internet IPOs in the region and on NASDAQ will at least quadruple over the next year."

    Robert Kenny and Jonathan Cheng Offer Money and Smarts
    Step into Robert Kenny's office in Hong Kong's gritty Wanchai district and you may find him idly flipping a Frisbee. It's his way of making money on the Internet. Many of his clients are barely out of their teens, and catching Frisbees while talking deals is as natural to many of them as wearing chinos in the office. "I'll do whatever it takes," says Kenny, a 32-year-old Briton whose company, Incubasia, nurtures young Internet entrepreneurs in a kind of upbeat corporate hatchery. "If playing with a Frisbee inspires our clients, then a Frisbee it is."

    Kenny's firm, which he co-founded with Jonathan Cheng, is known as an incubator and is critical to the development of Internet businesses. Think of such companies as corporate foster parents whose experts nurture Netrepreneurs so they can make it on their own. Strong on tech but sloppy on marketing? Probe the incubator's contact book. Big on vision but clueless on execution? An incubator can find just the right manager.

    The Internet's most successful and best-known incubators tend to be American. CMGI Inc. of Andover, Mass., Guy Kawasaki's in Palo Alto, Calif., and Bill Gross's in Pasadena, Calif., have fostered more than 150 Net start-ups in all, hitting pay dirt when their young charges go public. CMGI, which has partnered in Asia with Hong Kong businessman Richard Li's Pacific Century group, has been called the Berkshire Hathaway of the Internet. CMGI currently boasts a market capitalization of about $26 billion.

    Kenny, who studied management and mathematics at Cambridge University, knows Internet start-ups intimately. His Taiwanese-American wife is co-founder and CEO of , whose website dispenses sex and love-life advice to lovelorn Chinese. Kenny co-founded his own company last September with Cheng, 29, a well-connected Hong Kong financier. Last December, Brett Rierson, a former vice president at A.T. Kearney Executive Search's global technology practice in London and Hong Kong, became the third partner. One start-up, a classified-advertising website, has graduated from Incubasia and four others are in the hatchery.

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