Kara Swisher

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Former Google China Head–and Now Start-up Whisperer–Kai-Fu Lee Talks Innovation (Works)

Last Friday, former Google China head Kai-Fu Lee (pictured here) dialed up BoomTown from that country for a chit-chat interview about his life since leaving the search giant one year ago and plunging into the world of incubation, recruiting and early-stage funding for start-ups there.

Being president of Google’s China operations is far different from being CEO of Innovation Works, which just celebrated its first anniversary.

And, although he left Google (GOOG) on tense terms, said many sources, Lee complimented it as still having the best technology in the world.

Nonetheless, he also added it will only become harder for any U.S. company to compete in China over the next few years for a variety of reasons.

Lee would not specifically talk about Google’s fight with China over censorship issues, but said the bigger problem for it and other U.S. Web companies was actually that they are not local or nimble enough to beat out an increasingly trained Chinese tech workforce.

According to Lee–as well as explained in an interesting deck he sent me that is embedded below–Silicon Valley can no longer rely on a tech edge that it has long had, and China units of U.S. tech companies still will not empower their Chinese employees enough to compete.

“In China, there are a mass of very talented engineers who can attack a long-tail opportunity very quickly,” he said. “This kind of speed is critical in this market now.”

That’s why–unlike most Silicon Valley venture firms with a presence in China–he decided to focus Innovation Works on early-stage companies.

“We see it as a unique opportunity to provide a refreshing accessibility for small, but promising, Chinese companies,” Lee said. “There are a lot of inefficiencies.”

With a heavy focus on mobile–which Lee considers the key arena in China, much of it based on versions of Google’s Android mobile operating system–Innovation Works has focused on a dozen start-ups, including:

Tapas: An Internet smartphone operating system–based on Google’s Android–tailored to Chinese users.

Wonderpod (Wandoujia): A software “assistant” for Android phones to download applications, videos and music without consuming expensive mobile bandwidth.

Umeng: An analytics tool for mobile developers in China.

Photo Wonder: Mobile phone software for enhancing and sharing photos.

Ascending Cloud: A game publisher built on proprietary technology for developing and publishing social and Web games for over 30 countries.

Lee said now that the strategy and investments are in place, next year’s focus will be on nurturing the companies Innovation Works has invested in.

While he said he knows that it is still early, Lee–who has also worked at Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT)–said he thinks that China, specifically Beijing and Zhongguancun, could become the next Silicon Valley.

“There are 300 million Chinese using mobile devices and there is no one or two dominant player, as is the case in the U.S.,” Lee said. “It’s the same across a variety of areas, so the landscape for small, scrappy start-ups is wide open and huge.”

We’ll see how it all turns out. but here is the must-see deck from Lee, as well as a press release on Innovation Works’ first anniversary and a detailed description of it:

Innovation Works Overview (US Press)

Sep 8 Press Release

Incubation Programs

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