China Industry

Money is Chasing Chinese AI Startups

Beijing-based Horizon Robotics' A-plus series funding round is expected to raise US$100 million by year's end.

Chinese artificial intelligence startups are benefiting from a windfall of funding as Chinese investors and global tech giants scramble to climb aboard what might become the next Baidu, Alibaba or Tencent in the age of AI.

Beijing-based Horizon Robotics’ A-plus series funding round is expected to raise US$100 million by year’s end. The company provides embedded AI technologies and solutions for applications such as self-driving vehicles, smart house appliances and the smart city. Horizon bills itself as the only Chinese self-driving startup collaborating with leading OEMs and Tier 1 companies in the top four automotive markets (US, Germany, Japan and China).

This A-plus series funding will further advance Horizon Robotics’ technology, R&D, and business deployment.

Intel is the lead investor, says Horizon Robotics Founder & CEO Dr. Kai Yu. Intel Capital has poured US$60 million into a total of 15 startups like Horizon Robotics, who are applying big data and AI technology to businesses, according to TechCrunch.

At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Intel and Horizon Robotics co-launched their advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), designed to improve car safety. Intel’s ADAS is built upon Horizon Robotics’ self-developed AI processor infrastructure Brain Processing Unit (BPU).

“Horizon Robotics has attracted a talented and experienced team in AI with deep expertise in applications such as autonomous driving and human-machine interface (HMI). Intel’s FPGAs pair well with Horizon’s open model for technology integration to provide our customers with a flexible, power-efficient computing platform,” says Daniel McNamara, corporate vice president and general manager of the Programmable Solutions Group at Intel Corporation. McNamara will join Horizon Robotics’ board of directors.

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Kai Yu (Left) and Daniel McNamara (Right). Courtesy Horizon Robotics.

Harvest Investments is Horizon’s other lead investor, joining existing investors including Morningside Venture Capital, Hillhouse Capital, Wu Capital and Linear Ventures.

No fewer than five Chinese AI startups have raised over US$100 million this year. Computer vision unicorn SenseTime completed a US$410 million series B round in July, in what the company calls the largest private financing round ever closed by an AI start-up. Founded in 2014, SenseTime integrates deep learning with computer vision to replicate tasks performed by the human visual system.

Chinese cloud-based robotic company CloudMinds, which unveiled the world’s first cloud-based intelligent terminal DATA and the cloud-robot META, collected a cool US$100 million in A-round financing earlier this year. In August, AI startup Cambricon, which equips Huawei’s Mate 10 with its designed AI chip, also picked up US$100 million in A-round funding.

Although most Chinese AI startups are backed by domestic capital and financial institutions, top global corporations are also jumping on the bandwagon. Back in 2015, Google invested US$75 million in Mobvoi, a startup focused on smart voice-assistant devices. This year, German automotive manufacturer Volkswagen followed up by giving Mobvoi US$180 million for its capability in speech recognition and natural language processing. Earlier this year Mobvoi launched a vehicle-based product, TicMirror, which can interact with the driver via voice to help with navigation, playing music, etc. Volkswagen is eager to employ such AI-driven technologies in its vehicles.

A common characteristic of today’s rising Chinese AI startups is the companies’ founders, who are all distinguished AI scientists. Before Dr. Yu founded Horizon Robotics he was the founder and head of the Institute of Deep Learning at Baidu, and spearheaded China’s first autonomous driving project in 2013.

This July, Horizon Robotics unveiled its self-driving prototype. The company has already solved the automatic parking problem, and will soon release updates on localized applications for its self-driving solutions.

Because recruiting experts and training machine learning models can cost millions of dollars, AI today is a domain largely inhabited by very wealthy companies. With all the funding coming their way, Chinese startups are getting a welcome boost in the global AI race.


Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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