This is part 5 in our series on what we have dubbed “China free look schemes.” Essentially, China free look schemes are methods employed by Chinese companies to get a “free look” at the intellectual property and trade secrets of foreign companies. In part 1 of this series, we looked at how Chinese companies use their purported interest in investing in a foreign company to convince the foreign company to give the Chinese company access to the foreign company’s IP. In part 2, we explained how Chinese companies use Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) to get free looks at foreign technology. In part 3, we explained how Chinese companies use Joint Ventures (real, fake and non-existent) to get at foreign technology without paying for it. In part 4, we noted how there are plenty of legitimate Chinese companies seeking legitimate deals with foreign companies and then explained how to determine whether the Chinese company with which you are dealing is serious about doing a real deal or is just trying to get a free look at your IP.
In this, part 5, we address how best to deal with the risk of a China company free look scheme.
The Chinese money looks good, but you don’t want to give away the technology base of your company and then never see the cash. So how do you spot the schemer? The first step is to get clear about the motive of the potential investor from China. Is the Chinese investor focused on financial return or on the technology?
It is possible the investor from China is what we can call standard financial investors. These are venture capital or private equity funds focused on financial return. It is relatively easy to identify a financial investor. Their interests are not focused on the content of technology; they are interested in making money. Negotiations with a financial investor will focus on business terms: price, payment schedules, control, board representation, exit strategy and related. Negotiations on these critical issues with Chinese investors is usually quite difficult. In particular, Chinese investors like to make a last minute bid for a reduced price.
But their motivation remains clearly financial. Such an investor will not seek to investigate the technology. Such an investor will not propose joint ventures and tie ups in China. Discussion will be limited to hard nosed business terms. U.S. companies and their advisors are used to this type of investor. The approach is the same all over the world. So the standard deal techniques and documentation generally will apply.
Note, however, that just because the Chinese investor bills itself as a private equity or VC fund does not mean it is not focused on technology. In fact, in today’s China, the opposite is most likely to the be the case. Beneath its indigenous innovation rhetoric, the Chinese government understands that Chinese companies and academic institutions do not have the capability to develop modern technology quickly enough for Chinese government plans. For example, the deadline for a program like Made in China 2025 is already drawing quite near and to jump start development the Chinese government has made acquiring foreign technology a primary goal.
To implement this acquisition program, the Chinese government has taken two approaches. First, it has pressed Chinese companies to make acquisitions in their areas of business that are not focused on financial benefit but rather are focused on acquisition of technology. Second, the Chinese government has instructed private investment funds and banks to quit investing in non-essential sectors such as foreign real estate and media and instead to concentrate on the acquisition of technology. Existing Chinese funds have changed their focus. New funds are being created that are focused solely on acquiring foreign technologies in government mandated key sectors.
In the old days, the way you spotted a technology focused investor was to simply ask whether the Chinese company directly competes with your company? Now though far more research is required. If the investment comes from a Chinese based fund, you have to ask whether the goal of this fund is limited to financial return or is its goal to acquire advanced technology for the benefit of China as a whole, rather than for the financial gain of the holders of the fund.
Once you determine the potential investor is focused primarily on technology you then have another set of decisions to make.
Our China attorneys typically see three types of investor that should be rejected because they are only planning on a free look:
1. The investor has no intention of investing. They only want a free look. This type of investor should be rejected as soon as possible.
2. A more clever Chinese investor strategy is to seek to access to the technology of the target company in exchange for a modest investment. It is common for Chinese investors to take this position. Their position will go even beyond the standard free look. They will say: “We are now part owners of the company so the company should provide us with free access to all the technology information owned by the company and it should follow our direction in doing business in China. Joint ventures, distributors and business partners should be selected by us.” This is a violation of basic company law. A minority investor usually does not have a right to access confidential information or to direct the operations of the company. This is particularly true when that minority investor directly competes with the company. When Chinese investors make this kind of demand, this usually shows they are just planning on following the free look strategy. When they reveal their real intention, they should be shown the door.
3. The more difficult type of investor is the investor who at least claims it intends to purchase a majority interest in the company. As is generally known, acquisitions by Chinese investors face a number of obstacles: a) agreement on the business terms, b) approval by the Chinese government, and c) approval by the U.S. government. So even when the Chinese investor is sincere in its intent, an acquisition from China can take a lot of time and may never happen at all. The risk here is that the investment from the Chinese side will turn into a free look scheme. This is a very common result and must be resisted.
The conversion into free look centers on the due diligence period and the content of due diligence demanded by the Chinese side. The sequence generally works like this:
The Chinese side starts the negotiation agreeing to a very high price. Then, just before the initial closing date, the Chinese side pushes for a substantially lower price and give one of three reasons: a) It no longer has faith in the technology, b) The Chinese government will not allow the investment, or c) The ultimate backers of the Chinese side (banks and funds) will not agree. In each case, the solution proposed by the Chinese side is that the investment target provide inside data about the technology or it enter into a cooperative project in China to demonstrate and prove the technology.
The process continues, as the Chinese side pushes for more and more technical information. In the end, if the U.S. side finally agrees to substantially reduced prices, the Chinese side will close on the deal since it has acquired the technology at a bargain price. Sometimes the deal simply fails, with this failure never attributed to the decision of the Chinese investor. Instead, the Chinese company usually blames the failure of the deal on a decision of the Chinese government or the unknown Chinese “backers” of the deal.
In the end, the Chinese investor either acquires the technology at a bargain price or converts the deal into a free look scheme. So what looks like a legitimate investment proposal turns into a free look scheme or an absurdly cheap one. This common situation, where a failed Chinese acquisition turns into technology theft, is often reported in the financial press. See, for example this weeks New York Times story, Inside a Heist of American Chip Designs, as China Bids for Tech Power.
But you are a start-up and you need the cash. So what do you do to weed out the genuine Chinese investors from the free look schemers. We will set out the basic plan in our next and last post in this free look scheme series.