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Facebook Co-Founder Saverin Sees Opportunities in Asian Tech Growth

02/21/2013 | 02:25am US/Eastern
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--Eduardo Saverin sees Asia as center of consumer-base growth and investment opportunities

--Saverin favors China for market size; Japan and South Korea for robust markets

--Saverin denies renouncing U.S. citizenship for tax-avoidance reasons

(Updates throughout with details and background.)

By Chun Han Wong and Juro Osawa

SINGAPORE--Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook Inc., doesn't expect to repeat the scale of success he had with the popular social network, but says Asia's rapidly expanding consumer market offers fertile ground for fresh innovation and investment.

"Asia, when you look at the Internet growth and mobile growth, is the center in terms of where the consumer base will be in the future," Mr. Saverin said at The Wall Street Journal's Unleashing Innovation conference in Singapore. "The exponential growth in mobile technology" in the region is creating investment opportunities, he said.

China is attractive for its sheer size, while Japan and South Korea offer "more developed, robust and monetizable" markets, said the Brazilian-born billionaire, who is assessing opportunities on a five to ten year investment horizon, particularly in start-ups focused on improving interactive consumer experience.

Mr. Saverin, who co-founded Facebook with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and other Harvard students in 2004, also cited Asia's investment appeal as a major factor behind his relocation to Singapore and renouncing of his U.S. citizenship.

"Today, I'm an angel investor, [an] early-stage investor," he told the conference in Singapore. "My life is not about creating another Facebook; it's about making sure what I do is fulfilling."

Mr. Saverin, who hails from a wealthy Brazilian family, was squeezed out of Facebook about two years after its launch. After a series of dilution and sales of some of his shares, his stake fell to about 2% last year from about 34% originally, according to a person familiar with the matter.

After moving to Singapore in 2009, Mr. Saverin has become a celebrity in the city-state, followed closely by local fans and reporters. The Internet entrepreneur has put money into a number of start-ups, mainly back in the U.S., including Shopsavvy, a price-comparison mobile application; Qwiki, a multimedia video website; and Jumio, a mobile-payments start-up.

Mr. Saverin denied his move out of the U.S. was for tax avoidance reasons, saying it was a "personal decision that started...before even there was a distinct prospect of a Facebook IPO." He said money was not the issue. "I don't look at money as something I need," he said.

Singapore has tried to become an Internet-technology hub, with limited success. The entrepreneur himself hasn't spent much on local start-ups.

Nonetheless, Mr. Saverin praised Singapore for its strong schools and government backing for start-ups.

Mr. Saverin said he has no connections to Facebook beyond his investment, except, "My current startups all use Facebook."

He praised the company and his fellow co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

"Mark has done an incredible job and continues to," Mr. Saverin said. "Now its nine years old, I can't believe that nine years ago, no Facebook."

He looked back to the founding of Facebook, saying that the first time they knew they had a hit was when 85% of their Harvard class joined in the first month and colleges were on waiting lists to sign up.

At The Wall Street Journal's conference in Singapore, there was significant discussion about innovation in Asia compared to the United States. Mr. Saverin said there needs to be an appetite for risk-taking in Asia for the region to match what has been created in Silicon Valley.

Another factor is innovation itself. "You need to see success stories," he said. "Having that around you really helps to propel an ecosystem."

Mr. Saverin spends time mentoring entrepreneurs, saying he looks for people who are willing to "crawl glass" for their idea.

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@dowjones.com and Juro Osawa at juro.osawa@dowjones.com

Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires

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