After Geoffrey Hinton proposed the concept of deep learning in 2006, a new epoch of artificial intelligence (AI) development began. Thousands of AI startups have emerged in the past decade. According to Wuzhen Institute, a Chinese non-profit research organization, the amount of AI enterprises in the world had reached 15,916 by the end of 2018. The U.S., China and U.K. topped the world with 4,567, 3,341 and 868 AI companies respectively.
AI has become a target area for global investors. Venture funds, internet giants (such as BAT) and other big-scale actors joined the strategic-investment race in order to benefit from AI in the future.
According to ITjuzi enterprise database, that the amount of AI-related investment events in China hit 643 in 2018, accounting for 9.7% of the total number of financing rounds over the same period in the country. Four years ago, only 158 events of this type occurred - the AI share in the whole funding pie was almost three times smaller. This year, we expect it to surpass 10%.
AI-related investment events occurred in China making up 3.3% in total. This number is expected to surpass 10% this year.
Dozens of AI unicorns have appeared one after the other in China, commonly with several rounds of financing and raising billions of money in total. This article summarizes the top 10 AI enterprises by the number of funding rounds.
Founded in 2014, SenseTime has grown to be one of the most successful AI unicorns in China and gained a good reputation in the world. Its valuation has skyrocketed to CNY 39 billion (USD 5.63 billion) after 10 rounds of financing by well-known investors from around the world, Tiger Global, Silver Lake, Fidelity, SoftBank, Qualcomm, Alibaba, Temasek Holdings and so on.
The core competitive advantage of SenseTime is advanced deep learning technology, especially in computer vision. Its best-in-kind R&D team consists of Ph.D. holders and college professors from MIT, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Tsinghua University and Peking University as well as tech experts from Microsoft, Google, Lenovo and Baidu. Both of two founders, Tang Xiaoou (汤晓鸥) and Xu Li (徐立), are deep learning scientists from The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
With the strategy of “AI for everything”, SenseTime develops AI solutions for multiple industries and areas, including smart city, smartphone, internet entertainment, ads, auto, finance, retail, education, real estate and so on. The company has cooperated with more than 700 well-known global institutions and enterprises, such as MIT, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Honda, SNOW, Alibaba, Suning, China Mobile, OPPO, Vivo, Xiaomi, Weibo, Wanke, etc.
Though the specific revenue or net income figures are not disclosed, researchers from EO Intelligence - an industry and technology research institute - confirmed that in 2017, SenseTime posted revenue of around CNY 700 million and became profitable. The primary source of revenue is the sales of surveillance cameras with facial recognition. In 2018, sales reached CNY 7 billion, well exceeding all competitors'.
SenseTime set its headquarter in Beijing and other offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Kyoto, Tokyo and Singapore.
Ant Financial is one of the highest valued fintech companies in the world, officially founded in October 2014. After six rounds of financing, its valuation has surpassed USD 160 billion. The investors consist of many global financial behemoths and famous investment companies, such as Government of Singapore Investment Corp, Baillie Gifford, General Atlantic, Temasek Holdings, Sequoia, CPIC, Alibaba and so on.
As an affiliate of Alibaba, Ant Financial was born from Alipay, a third-party mobile and online payment platform launched in 2004. The company is more like a technology enterprise with its strategy called BASIC (Blockchain, AI, Security, IoT and Cloud computing), raised in 2017 in a conference organized by Ant Financial.
Ant Financial focuses on payment, wealth management, P2P and technology service, with dozens of products such as Alipay, Yu’E Bao, MYbank, Ant Credit Pay, Zhima Credit, Huabei, Jiebei and so on. Till now, Ant Financial has acquired 14 financial licenses including banking, insurance, payment, securities, P2P and so on.
According to Ant Financial, it will focus more on technology services as a third party. It is expected that 65% of its revenue will come from technology service in 2021. EO Intelligence predicts that Ant Financial will achieve a revenue ranging from CNY 94.2 billion to CNY 125.6 billion in 2021.
ByteDance is one of China’s internet giants operating several famous content platforms like such as Toutiao, Douyin (the domestic version of TikTok), Huoshan short video, Xigua short video and so on. Eight rounds of financing drive ByteDance’s valuation to CNY 487.5 billion, with famous investors like Sequoia, Softbank, DST, KKR, General Atlantic, Shunwei Capital and so on.
The company was founded by Zhang Yiming (张一鸣) in 2012, headquartered in Beijing. Based on a precise recommendation system driven by machine learning, Toutiao and Douyin have attracted massive internet traffic. ByteDance disclosed that Toutiao’s monthly active users (MAUs) reached 254 million in last September, and the MAUs of Douyin surpassed 500 million by the end of this January.
Beginning its global business from 2015, ByteDance has unveiled its products in over 150 countries with top ranking in more than 40 countries’ Apps markets. According to Zhang Yiming, the total MAUs of ByteDance’s products have exceeded 10 million by the end of March. Douyin jumped to the first in App market with 45.8 million downloads in the first quarter, followed by Facebook, Instagram and Youtube, reported by Sensor Tower.
The main contributor to ByteDance’s revenue is ads because of its great number of users. According to an insider, the revenue of ByteDance has leaped from CNY 15 billion in 2017 to CNY 50 billion in 2018.
Unisound is one of China’s leading speech recognition technology enterprises, founded in 2012 in Beijing. The company has closed eight rounds of funding, leading its valuation to USD 1.9 billion. The investors consist of several famous companies, such as Qualcomm, Qiming Venture Partners, CICC, JDD and so on.
Unisound stands out on speech recognition, speech synthesis, knowledge graph and other speech-related technologies. As an AI solution provider like SenseTime, Unisound provides customized services for different clients from various industries.
In the field of smart home, Unisound provides speech operation systems to several home appliance giants, including GREE, Midea, Changhong, VATII, etc. In healthcare, Unisound debuts text-to-speech solution UniHealth to doctors, a more efficient way to input medical records merely by speaking other than typewriting, employed in about 100 hospitals. Unisound also provides its technology to vehicle interaction device producers and education providers. To improve the performance of its products as well as reduce costs, Unisound unveiled AI chip in last May.
According to Huang Wei (黄伟), founder and CEO of Unisound, the company has provided services to over 20 thousand companies covering 200 million users. It is expected that Unisound’s revenue will surpass CNY 500 million by the end of this year, with profit of over CNY 100 million.
Founded in 2012, UBTECH is one of the global leading service robotics companies, based in Shenzhen, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. The company raised seven rounds of financing with the newest valuation of USD 10 billion, behind which are investors including Tencent, IFLYTECH, BYD, Green Pine Capital Partners, Minsheng Securities, etc.
Servo steering engine, the motion controller of the robot, is the cutting-edge technology of UBTECH. The company designs and produces the advanced servo steering engine. Based on it, UBTECH develops humanoid robots with better motion ability compared with other similar products.
The company’s R&D team has over 500 experts in robots and artificial intelligence, holding 1,253 patents by the end of 2018, in the field of Servo steering engine, computer vision, natural language process, SLAM, and so on.
UBTECH has developed various types of robot products for entertainment, coding education, public services and security, with multiple use case scenarios, including home, retail store, train station, airport, bank, hospital, school, hotel, etc. For instance, its public service robot Cruzr has been employed in more than 2,000 Easyhome stores. This event is regarded as the biggest commercial case for service robots in the world.
According to Wang Rulin (王汝林), COO of UBTECH, half of the revenue comes from foreign countries, especially in North America and Europe by collaborating with Best Buy, Apple, Amazon, Media Markt and other sale channels. The company is preparing to list on STAR Market this year.
Megvii, led by three computer scientists from Tsinghua University, is one of the global leading AI giants providing AI solutions for various industries like SenseTime. With seven rounds of financing, this company’s valuation has reached USD 4 billion invested by some well-known global companies and investment institutions, such as Macquarie Group, ADIA, RCFSI, Foxconn, Alibaba, Sinovation Ventures, etc.
Founded in 2011, Megvii started its business with Face++, a facial recognition solution， mainly used for identification in internet finance companies. For instance, Alipay is one of its important clients.
Based on its facial recognition technology, Megvii develops smart surveillance cameras for government clients, which contributed a lot to the company’s revenue before this year. However, after the intense competition among several smart camera suppliers, this market has limited room for further development. Thus, the company launched its new strategy of IoT last year, providing IoT solutions for home appliances, city infrastructures and supply chains.
In addition, Megvii also provides 3D facial recognition technology for smartphone, cooperating with eight mobile phone manufacturers including Huawei, Vivo, Xiaomi, smartisan and so on. The company is developing AR technology, whose main application scenario is the smartphone as well.
According to Xie Peng (谢鹏), vice president of Megvii, the company has grown to be a over-2,000-employees AI lead player serving more than 1,000 companies in over 200 countries and regions, with some leading industrial leaders like Ant Financial, Foxconn, Lenovo, CapitaLand, CR Holdings, CHINA CITIC BANK and so on.
Megvii planned to list on board this year – possibly for Nasdaq according to someone familiar with the matter but reconsidered the plan because of the trade war between U.S. and China.
Video++, founded in 2014, is a Chinese technology company that creates more possibilities in the field of video advertisement by artificial intelligence. With 7 rounds of financing, the company has grown to be a unicorn, whose main investors include Alibaba Group, YF Capital, UBTECH, Megvii, Sirius Capital, Winshare Capital and so on.
FaceAI, one of the core products of Video++, can understand the content of video and place advertisements in proper positions in videos automatically and in real-time. With Object recognition ability, FaceAI can understand 8 kinds of information in videos, including human face, place, object, brand, landmark, movement, expression and sound.
According to Video++, FaceAI has served 873 kinds of scenarios, with more than 12 million minutes videos, including more than 120 top brands, such as imgo.tv, iQIYI, DOUYU, letv and so on.
DONG Huizhi (董慧智), the co-founder and COO of Video++, said the valuation of this company has reached CNY 6.5 billion by the end of 2018, and the revenue grows rapidly in the past three years. Its annual revenue is only around CNY 3 million in 2016. This number changed to more than CNY 100 million in 2017, which mainly came from the service fee of advertisement. In 2018, Video++ created around CNY 600 million revenue under the overall arrangement in e-commerce.
Founded in 2012, Yitu Technology is one of China’s AI unicorns with seven rounds of financing. Its investors include reputable investment companies like Sequoia China, Banyan Capital, Hillhouse Capital, Zhen Fund and YF Capital.
The company is known by the public mainly because of its face recognition system. Till now, Shanghai polices have arrested more than 60 suspects at the concert of Jacky Cheung with the help of the face recognition system provided by Yitu.
In addition, the company has AI abilities including computer vision, speech recognition, natural language processing, as well as AI chips design. Yitu Technology focuses on three industries: security, finance and healthcare.
In 2013, the company started to develop smart cameras with face recognition. Now, its smart cameras have been equipped in over 30 provinces in China, and Yitu has become the main supplier of smart cameras for the Shanghai government.
In 2015, Yitu applied face recognition to payment and cooperated with several China’s banks like Agricultural Bank of China, China Merchants Bank, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank and Pingan Bank.
In 2016, Yitu founded its subsidiary, Yitu Medical, to develop AI-assisted imaging diagnosis systems. Its core product, Care.Ai TM, is for a variety of diseases, including lung cancer, bone age detection, pediatric intelligent diagnosis, and medical record intelligent search engine. As of January 2019, more than 50 top hospitals in China have adopted this product.
Horizon Robotics, a leading AI chips designer in China, has closed six rounds of financing from it was founded in 2015. Its existing investors include Hillhouse Capital, Linear Venture, CMBC Capital, Morningside Venture Capital and so on.
Horizon's terminal computing focuses on two scenarios. One is for smart vehicles which will become a super terminal, and the other is for IoT devices, mainly cameras. Under smart retail scenarios, Horizon technology embedded-camera can substitute humans to monitor store situations, which can thus cut costs and improve efficiency for the retail industry. For now, bases of industrial division and cooperation have not been established yet, Horizon pursues to leverage others with its chips designed for the camera and smart vehicles as an underlying computing platform, according to YU Kai (余凯), the company's CEO and founder.
YU also implied that the company's revenue in 2018 has reached more than CNY 100 million (USD 15 million) since the company released Gauss-architecture-based processor Sunrise 1.0 and Journey 1.0 in December 2017, growing 10 times compared to 2017. 2019 is the starting year of commercialization, according to EO Company.
Founded in 2016, Cambricon has grown to be a unicorn company in the field of AI chips, valuated USD 2.5 USD after its B series funding in June 2018. It has financed for 6 rounds, and its main investors include many state-owned large funds, such as CMCDI, China Venture Capital Fund, Chinese Academy of Sciences, etc.
In 2016, Cambricon launched Cambricon-1A processor, which is the world's first commercial deep learning dedicated processor for smartphones, security surveillance, wearables, drones and smart driving. In 2018, Cambricon launched Cambricon 1M chip for edge computing, and the MLU100, the first in a new chip series for cloud computing.
Cambricon will launch its second generation of AI chip, MLU270, for cloud data center servers this month, according to someone familiar with the matter. Last year, Cambricon launched the first-generation product, MLU100, and obtained purchase orders from Inspur, Lenovo, Sugon, DiDi and HIKVISION.
Born from the Institute of Computing Technology Chinese Academy of Sciences, Cambricon has advantages on R&D of AI chips. CHEN Tianshi (陈天石), the founder and CEO of Cambricon, is an outstanding expert in the field of processor architecture and AI with a high reputation all over the world. He obtained received his Ph.D. in engineering from the School of Computer Science, China University of Science and Technology in 2010. He has attracted lots of scientists to join his firm, who have an average of more than 9-year R&D experience. Last year, CHEN Tianshi revealed that Cambricon might list in the A-share market in the future.