Date
20 September 2017
Cambricon chips are designed for deep learning and can be used in devices such as drones and cell phones and in autonomous driving.  Photo: Cambricon
Cambricon chips are designed for deep learning and can be used in devices such as drones and cell phones and in autonomous driving. Photo: Cambricon

Meet China’s first AI unicorn

Cambricon Technologies, a Beijing-based artificial intelligence (AI) chip developer, has raised US$100 million from government-backed State Development and Investment, Lenovo Capital and Incubator Group (LCIG), and an investment unit owned by Alibaba Group. It’s the nation’s first unicorn (unlisted startup valued at over US$1 billion) in the AI chip industry, according to mainland media reports.

Established in 2016, the company was founded by Chen Yunji and Chen Tianshi, two young professors at the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy Of Sciences. It has two R&D centres in Beijing and Shanghai and two major product lines — terminals and servers.

It received an angel round of funding worth 10 million yuan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in April last year. Four months later, Oriza, Yonghua and iFlytek, China’s leading information technology firms poured tens of millions yuan in the pre-A round.

Last year, the company launched a processor named Cambricon-1A, which it claims to be the world’s first commercial chip for deep learning. The product can be used in different devices, such as smartphones, security, drones, wearable devices and autonomous driving.

The Cambricon-1A chip can handle 16 billion virtual neurons per second and has a peak capacity of two trillion synapses per second. The chip can enhance the computer’s capability to recognize sounds and pictures.

Currently, the US has a strong hold on the AI industry. As of June this year, there were a total of 2,542 AI companies in the world. Of this, 1,078 companies or 42 percent are in the US. There are 592 Chinese companies in the sector, representing 23 percent of the world’s total.

In terms of the proportion of funds raised that is spent on chip development, China’s 7.55 percent lags that of the US at 31 percent.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based SenseTime Group, which makes artificial intelligence software that recognizes objects and faces, raised US$410 million in a B round financing in July. The company now has a valuation of over HK$10 billion, which makes it the first unicorn in Hong Kong’s Science Park.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 22

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal

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