24 February 2019
SenseTime co-founder Xu Chiheng demonstrates his company's surveillance software on a laptop. The AI startup has just closed a record funding round led by Alibaba. Photo: Reuters
SenseTime co-founder Xu Chiheng demonstrates his company's surveillance software on a laptop. The AI startup has just closed a record funding round led by Alibaba. Photo: Reuters

SenseTime raises US$600 million in Alibaba-led funding round

Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) startup SenseTime Group says it has raised US$600 million in its Series C round of funding, which is led by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Singapore state investment firm Temasek and Suning, China’s largest consumer electronics retailer, also participated in the funding round.

With the deal, another record round of financing in the global AI field, SenseTime has become the world’s most highly valued AI platform, the company said. The company did not disclose its valuation after the deal, but Bloomberg reported that the round valued SenseTime at over US$3 billion.

In its previous US$410 million funding round last July, the company was valued at around US$2 billion, Reuters said. Existing investors include US chipmaker Qualcomm.

Xu Li, SenseTime co-founder and chief executive, expects the latest funding round will “accelerate the development of a global footprint with a larger ecosystem incorporating both domestic and overseas partners” and help the company “widen the scope for more industrial application of AI”.

Alibaba’s executive vice chairman Joe Tsai said: “Our business at Alibaba is already seeing tangible benefits from our investments in AI and we are committed to further investment.” He expects the strategic partnership will spark more innovation and create value for society.

SenseTime is already in talks to launch another round of funding and targeting a valuation of more than US$4.5 billion, Bloomberg reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Xu Li told the financial media company that SenseTime, which turned profitable in 2017, wanted to grow its workforce by a third to 2,000 by the end of this year.

Focusing on computer vision and deep learning technologies, SenseTime is known to be leading the AI sector in such fields as image recognition, autonomous driving, and deep learning hardware.

It has a training database of 2 billion faces and 10 billion images and videos, with its facial recognition error rate placed at 1/100 million, the company told Reuters.

By providing algorithms and applications for facial recognition, video analysis, and other areas, SenseTime is enjoying fast growth with the demand from the Chinese government and private sector in the country for its facial recognition technology.

Chinese large enterprises, like China Mobile, HNA Group, and Huawei Technologies, are part of SenseTime’s rich client portfolio.

China’s largest AI algorithms supplier has established partnerships with over 400 domestic and overseas enterprises such as chipmaker NVIDIA, smartphone maker Xiaomi, and Japanese Honda Motor.

It also announced a strategic partnership with US-based chip giant Qualcomm aiming to develop AI-enhanced chips, and has an “AI alliance” with Massachusets Institute of Technology to work on human and machine intelligence.

Tang Xiaoou, SenseTime co-founder and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the company has easy access to capital. “Big-name investors are queuing to get in. So for us, we are not in a hurry to launch an initial public offering. But at the right time, we definitely will,” Tang told Reuters in an interview last November.

On the IPO venue, he said Hong Kong, the United States, and China will be considered. He said it could be “next year or the year after, depending on whether it makes business sense”.

Tang said SenseTime aims to be “a ‘platform company’ that dominates with original core technology like Google and Facebook”.

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