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Unicorns: Harnessing innovation for hypergrowth

Key themes from the PwC China Unicorn Survey 2019 and reflections on what they mean in ­light of the COVID-19 crisis

In sectors ranging from transportation to media, Chinese unicorns are now world leaders and more are emerging all the time. Though the full effect of the coronavirus outbreak on China’s economy is currently unknown, the fact is that — over many years — the country’s fast-growing marketplace and readiness to adopt new technology have made it especially fertile ground for the growth of unicorns.

In our report 'Unicorns: Harnessing innovation for hypergrowth', we've looked to capture and explore some of the main insights from our China Unicorn Survey 2019, supplemented and supported by findings from our 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey and reflections from our leaders on the impact of Covid-19 on the Unicorn market.

“In response to the global impact of COVID-19, unicorns have launched a range of digital services for businesses in different sectors to meet new consumer dynamics as more people turn to digital applications and online services.”

Wilson Chow, Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications Leader, PwC China

PwC’s China Unicorn Survey 2019

PwC launched its China Unicorn Survey in 2018 to provide a unique annual snapshot into trends, developments, challenges and opportunities in the Chinese unicorn sector. In 2019 we updated the study, which gives us additional insights and a robust basis for annual comparisons.

The findings from our latest study — based on questionnaire responses from executives at more than 120 unicorns in 13 industries and in-depth, face-to-face interviews with more than 20 enterprises — are drawn exclusively from unicorns in China. But they have clear resonance and implications for their peers around the world.

Exhibit 3: China unicorns’ core competitive advantages

Sources of competitive advantage: Technology, talent, data

Talent and Upskilling: Imperatives for success

The importance of talent to unicorns’ success is underlined by the fact that our survey respondents in China rate it as second only to technology as a competitive advantage. Attracting high-quality and skilled talent remains the top priority in China unicorns’ development strategy for the next one to three years, with 83% citing it in 2019, up from 77% in 2018.

5G: A key technology of the future

The arrival of 5G technology represents a seismic technology shift and massive opportunity for unicorns worldwide, including those based in China. The number of China unicorns paying attention to 5G is increasing year by year. 

Among the 2019 respondents, the proportion of enterprises that believe 5G technology will have a significant impact on their business and product R&D rose to 39% from 2018’s 34%, the biggest gain among all emerging technologies.

Digital innovation and cyber: Balancing opportunity and risk

China unicorns increasingly regard technology as the principal driver of their success in the market and they’re striving to sharpen their technology edge through rising investment in technology R&D, which remains their top means of innovation.

Unicorns’ heavy reliance on emerging technologies inevitably exposes them to cybersecurity and data security risks. These risks are rising rapidly up unicorns’ agenda. In the Chinese Unicorn Survey, the proportion of respondents suffering a cybersecurity or data security crisis in 2019 rose from 19% to 26%, making it the third most prevalent type of crisis, behind issues in the capital supply chain and loss of talent to other companies, including to competitors.

“Although it is too early to fully gauge the economic impact of COVID-19, it has affected businesses and industries in a profound way and significantly changed the start-up ecosystem. Some companies in sectors such as online entertainment are seeing a good opportunity in the midst of the crisis. However, many start-ups are slashing spending to ensure business continuity in a more challenging fundraising environment.”

Elton HuangEntrepreneurial and Private Business Co-Leader, PwC China

Contact us

Wilson Chow

Wilson Chow

Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications Industry Leader, PwC China

Elton  Huang

Elton Huang

Entrepreneurial and Private Business Co-Leader, PwC China

Tel: +86 21 2323 3029

Stephen  Wong

Stephen Wong

Entrepreneurial and Private Business Co-Leader, PwC China

Tel: +86 10 6533 2255

Jianbin  Gao

Jianbin Gao

China TMT Leader and Private Equity Group Central China Leader, PwC China, PwC China

Tel: +86 21 2323 3362

Yuqing Guo

Yuqing Guo

Partner, China Centre of Excellence, PwC China

Tel: +86 21 2323 2655