August 21, 2014 12:00 am JST

This billionaire is worried by the widening wealth gap

YASUO AWAI, Nikkei staff writer

HONG KONG -- Just Mayo is mayonnaise with a difference: It is made without eggs. The new product is selling well at ParknShop supermarkets in Hong Kong. Li Ka-shing saw the product's potential long ago.

     The mayonnaise uses a plant-based ingredient in place of eggs and sells for 20 Hong Kong dollars ($2.58) a jar. It is more expensive than its eggy counterpart, but people are willing to pay for healthier, cholesterol-free mayonnaise.

     The company says it is the top selling condiment in the Great Food Hall, a Parknshop's branch for high- end consumers. His company plans to sell the mayonnaise in mainland China within a year.

     Li, an investor in Hampton Creek, owns ParknShop. His involvement in the U.S. startup gives the mayonnaise guaranteed shelf space in the supermarkets. According to Oliveira, the only advice Li gave to Hampton Creek was "to stay true to your values and why you started the company."

Man of many faces

Conglomerate head Li has another talent: He can play a mentor role when nurturing startups. Horizons Ventures, a company that manages Li's private investments, now has money in more than 50 companies in 12 countries and regions worldwide. Horizons is known for its ability to identify and invest in innovative technology companies early. Past investments include Facebook, Skype and Siri.

     More recently, however, it has moved away from information technology investment and focused more on biotechnology. Horizons in June was part of a group that invested a combined $10 million in Modern Meadow, a U.S. startup that is developing biofabricated leather and meat. It cultures cells from animals to make the goods. Li's company also injected cash into Kaiima Agro-Biotech, an Israel-based seed-and-breeding technology company. Kaiima focuses on creating bigger grains and plants using the company's nongenetically modified technology.

     These investments reflect Li's personal interests and desires. "There are three things that have bothered me to the extent that I cannot sleep well at night," he said at the commencement ceremony for Guangdong Province's Shantou University, to which he has donated money.

     Growing resource scarcity, the widening wealth gap and the lack of mutual trust among people, are the three things that concern the 86-year-old magnate. He believes that left unaddressed, these problems could shake the foundations of society.

     To counter resource scarcity, Li emphasized the importance of investing in science and technology, particularly in fields such as biotechnology, agriculture, and the environment and energy. The Hong Kong billionaire once said that even though China accounts for 20% of the global population, it has a much smaller proportion of the world's arable land and drinking water. Li sees biotechnology investments solving China's food-shortage and environmental problems.

     Events, jointly organized by a Chinese state agency and the Li Ka Shing Foundation, opened in May to showcase seven of the most innovative companies that have received investment from Li. The events were held in six Chinese cities, including Beijing, Xian, and Guangzhou. Startup owners and Chinese entrepreneurs used the events to network.

     "Companies need to fuse innovation and technology into their DNA," Li said in written remarks. "And governments need to rid themselves of the archaic straitjackets and shackles that weigh them down." Li, Asia's wealthiest businessman, is self-made. He seems to be pinning high hopes on technology startups that could change the Chinese economy and society.