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Chinese insurer Ping An looks overseas to boost technology

Financials

Chinese insurer Ping An looks overseas to boost technology

After developing innovative apps, group turns to investments to turbocharge growth

The consumer finance unit of Chinese insurer Ping An has started using homegrown facial recognition technology to screen potential borrowers who may be lying about their intentions to repay their debt.

The application is one of hundreds of new technologies that the company, the world’s largest insurer by market capitalisation and now HSBC’s second-largest shareholder, has developed in-house and deployed throughout its vast business, which ranges from banking and asset management to health clinics and online auto sales.

Ping An is casting its technology net wider, and has set up a $1bn fund that invests in overseas financial and health technology with an eye towards using the innovations in its Chinese businesses.

Jonathan Larsen, Ping An’s chief innovation officer, said the company recently bought into New York-based StartUp Health, an investor and incubator for healthcare companies. He did not disclose the size of the investment but said the fund entered into the deal as a limited partner.

“We do think it makes sense to invest in funds that will extend our reach into new technologies,” Mr Larsen said. He heads the overseas-focused investment unit, called Global Voyager, that launched earlier this year. “What we’re about is access to business models and systems . . . to drive innovation in the company,” he said.

So far, Ping An’s technology unit has kept pace with the expansion of the company, deploying homegrown systems such as face recognition. But Mr Larsen said the rapid growth of the company — it claimed to have 429m internet users in September, up 27 per cent in a year — is a factor pushing it to buy technology overseas.

The company’s roots are in insurance and it is still primarily known for its financial businesses. But Ping An owns a platform that supports more than 40,000 healthcare clinics across China and also operates one of the country’s largest online health services, GoodDoctor. Through StartUp Health, the fund will have exposure to new health technologies that could later be plugged into Ping An’s expanding healthcare businesses, Mr Larsen said.

In September, Ping An bought a minority stake in 10X Future Technologies, a start-up founded by former Barclays chief Antony Jenkins that builds digital platforms for banks. Technology from 10X can be used by a similar Ping An business that builds digital platforms for small and medium-sized Chinese banks.

Ping An’s targeted approach to overseas investment has helped it steer clear of the recent regulatory crackdown on other Chinese conglomerates that invested more broadly overseas.

While Anbang Insurance and Dalian Wanda have invested heavily in property and financial institutions in the US and Europe, Ping An has largely shied away from capital-intensive foreign investment except for a few properties, including the 2013 purchase of a London office tower.

“Hotel investment is not what we are going to start doing,” said Mr Larsen, who was former global head of Citigroup’s retail bank before joining Ping An in May to launch the fund.

The company’s largest investment in technology to date predates the fund: the $1.6bn purchase in 2016 of Autohome, a US-listed Chinese online car retailer.

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