Singapore will be the first stop in Jack Ma’s $15 billion global tech research expansion

Solar-power “trees” in Singapore.
Solar-power “trees” in Singapore.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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China’s largest e-commerce company is heading to the little red dot as its first destination in a $15 billion R&D push, as it seeks to become a global tech giant capable of competing with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

On Wednesday, at its annual cloud computing conference in Hangzhou, Alibaba CTO Jeff Zhang announced the company will launch Alibaba DAMO Academy, a worldwide program that will set up research and development labs in China, but also in Russia, Israel and the United States. Its first lab outside China will be in Singapore, which in recent years has been trying to move past its image as a finance center and promote itself as Southeast Asia’s tech hub.

Alibaba is working to expand beyond Chinese e-commerce, its bread-and-butter, an effort that mirrors that of Amazon, the company’s closest US-based analog.

According to an Alibaba representative the first overseas lab is expected to open in Singapore early in 2018. The city-state has recently become an important focus for the company, as it competes against its rivals to build out e-commerce in Southeast Asia. Last year it acquired online retailer Lazada for $1 billion. One year later, Amazon launched in Singapore, and Chinese competitor JD formed a $500 million joint-venture with Thai conglomerate Central Group.

Along with Singapore, the Academy will establish six other labs, creating a research network spanning Beijing, Hangzhou, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Bellevue (in the Seattle area), and San Mateo (in Silicon Valley).

DAMO, which stands for “Discovery, Adventure, Momentum, and Outlook,” is currently recruiting 100 researchers to join the project as official Alibaba employees. Funding for the academy comes as part of a larger $15 billion push into R&D that Alibaba has planned for the next three years. That amount represents a near doubling of the $2.5 billion (pdf, p. 7) the company spent in “product development” during the fiscal year ended in March 2017.

Alibaba has invested heavily in cloud computing and now has 14 data centers spread across China, Silicon Valley, Europe, and Southeast Asia—all of which serve clients who use Alibaba Cloud, similar to Amazon Web Services. The company has also poured resources into artificial intelligence, placing it squarely against Tencent and Baidu in China. And in July it unveiled the Tmall Genie X1, similar to the Amazon Echo home assistant.