Li and Leach saw an opportunity to create a Tesla-type vehicle for China. They sketched ambitious plans to launch a global startup with manufacturing in Shanghai, r&d in Silicon Valley, engineering in Munich and design in London.
Those plans have begun to bear fruit. This month, NIO launched sales of its first product — an all-electric seven-seat SUV — in Beijing.
After he incorporated NIO in 2015, Li persuaded Tencent, China's most valuable company, to invest hundreds of millions of dollars. Venture capital titans Sequoia Capital China and Hillhouse Capital came aboard, too.
That same year, Li and Leach also persuaded the highly regarded Padmasree Warrior to leave Cisco and lead NIO's technology team.
The India-born, Cornell-educated Warrior was named CEO of NIO USA, where she directs 460 employees in San Jose, Calif., on autonomous drive systems and connectivity.
People who have met Warrior say she is an intriguing blend of refinement, smarts and blunt talk. "Our goal is to build a robot that looks like a car," she told Bloomberg last year.
The company's first mass-market product is the ES8, a seven-seat SUV with plenty of performance chops. Think Tesla Model X without the flappy wings.
The aim is to take a chunk of China's massive luxury segment, which at an estimated 2.3 million vehicles in 2017 is larger than the U.S. luxury market.
Now let's acknowledge the skeptics. Can a car company really go from zilch to product launch in less than one presidential term? Doubters are right to ask questions, but NIO has answers:
- Manufacturing? NIO struck a deal with Jianghuai Automobile Co., Volkswagen's EV partner in China, to assemble the vehicles.
- Battery charging? NIO promises to offer swappable batteries, a creative fix to the inconveniences of charging in Chinese cities where most people live in high-rise apartments.
- Capital? Funding has grown steadily to $2.2 billion.
This doesn't eliminate all uncertainties, of course. Will brand-infatuated Chinese embrace NIO, a newbie without a deep heritage such as that of Mercedes?