Waze picks up $30M and plans Chinese expansion

Waze, the smart crowd-sourced traffic information application, has picked up $30 million in a Series C round of funding as it looks to capitalize on a burgeoning international opportunity, particularly in China. The Palo Alto company’s latest funding comes from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Horizon Ventures, which is managing the funds of Hong Kong’s Li Ka Shing, considered among the most powerful and richest men in Asia. Waze was a GigaOM Mobilize LaunchPad company back in 2009.

Waze — which previously raised $37 million from Blue Run Ventures, Magma Venture Partners and Vertex Venture Capital — has been on a tear and has eclipsed 7 million users, up from 2.2 million when it got $25 million in December of 2010. The company, which just pushed out version 3.0 of its services, leverages data from users who have downloaded the app to help construct a very accurate and real-time picture of traffic conditions. And it’s increasingly letting users report news events. Both features were on display during the Los Angeles “Carmageddon”, a shutdown in July of one of the busiest freeways in LA that ultimately brought in 200,000 users in two weeks thanks to a partnership with the local ABC (s DIS) affiliate.

While business has been strong in Waze’s top markets in the U.S., Israel, Italy and France, Latin America and Asia are becoming huge opportunities. And no country is bigger or perhaps more complicated than China, where consumers are snapping up cars but the infrastructure isn’t keeping pace. That’s why the investment by Li is key to Waze’s big planned push into the middle kingdom.

Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze told me Li can be instrumental in helping establish the necessary partnerships that are required to enter a heavily regulated market like China. He said the payoff could be huge because there isn’t a dominant mapping player in China. And the market is ripe for the solution that Waze offers.

“We think we have traffic here but when you get to China, you see what real traffic is. This is a strategic country for us. With the rate of growth and change in the infrastructure in China, traditional mapping technology has a hard time keeping up.”

With the new funding, Waze is also getting new additions to its board. John Malloy, Managing Partner of Blue Run Ventures and Jason Wong of Horizon Ventures are joining while Mary Meeker of KPCB will serve as a strategic advisor and board observer along with Josh Silverman, President of American Express US Consumer division and former CEO of Skype.

I think Waze is a great example of a number of trends happening in technology. It’s turning cell phones into passive sensors and it’s enabling people to become citizen journalists. Waze also builds off the growth of social networks by creating a community of drivers working toward a common good, and it’s thriving as a mobile utility app, something we’ve noted are becoming more popular despite being less noticeable compared to game and entertainment apps.

The cell phone is also becoming the gateway for the connected car, where our cars are becoming the latest always-on networked gadget. At our RoadMap event on November 10 in San Francisco we’ll discuss the connected car more indepth.

Waze still has a ways to go become a mainstream hit but it’s showing just how powerful smartphones can be in tackling a real world headache, not just here but around the world. Take a look at this infographic Waze worked up for its big funding announcement: