Tue, Apr 10, 2018 - Page 10 News List

SenseTime snags Alibaba funding to record valuation

‘STRATEGIC DIRECTIONS’:The financing would help the company develop its ability to parse data from thousands of live camera feeds, a platform invaluable in mass surveillance


SenseTime Group Ltd (商湯科技) has raised US$600 million from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (阿里巴巴) and other investors at a valuation of more than US$3 billion, becoming the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence (AI) start-up.

The company, which specializes in systems that analyze faces and images on an enormous scale, said it closed a Series C round in recent months in which Singaporean state investment firm Temasek Holdings PTE and shopping site Suning.com Co (蘇寧易購) also participated.

SenseTime did not outline individual investments, but Alibaba was said to have sought the biggest stake in the three-year-old start-up.

With the deal, SenseTime has doubled its valuation in a few months. Backed by Qualcomm Inc, it underscores its status as one of a crop of homegrown firms spearheading Beijing’s ambition to become the leader in AI by 2030.

It is also a contributor to the world’s biggest system of surveillance: If you have ever been photographed with a Chinese-made smartphone or walked the streets of a Chinese city, chances are your face has been digitally crunched by SenseTime software built into more than 100 million mobile devices.

The latest financing would bankroll investments in parallel fields such as autonomous driving and augmented reality, cover the growing cost of AI talent and shore up its computing power. It is developing a service codenamed “Viper” to parse data from thousands of live camera feeds — a platform it hopes would prove invaluable in mass surveillance.

It is also already in talks to raise another round of funds and targeting a valuation of more than US$4.5 billion, according to people familiar with the matter.

“We’re going to explore several new strategic directions and that’s why we will spend more money on building infrastructure,” SenseTime cofounder Xu Li (徐立) said in an interview.

The company turned profitable last year and wants to grow its workforce by one-third to 2,000 by the end of this year.

“For the past three years the average revenue growth has been 400 percent,” Xu said.

Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that is also China’s biggest cloud service provider, could help with its enormous infrastructure needs. SenseTime plans to build at least five supercomputers in top-tier cities over the coming year to drive Viper and other services.

As envisioned, it streams thousands of live feeds into a single system that are automatically processed and tagged via devices from office face-scanners to ATMs and traffic cameras — so long as the resolution is high enough. The ultimate goal is to juggle 100,000 feeds simultaneously.

SenseTime claims about 400 clients and partners including Qualcomm, chipmaker Nvidia Corp and smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp (小米).

It projects several billion yuan in revenue this year, Xu said.

The start-up is expanding its reach across augmented reality, popularized by services such as Snapchat, which impose digital stickers and images on the real world. It is also working with Honda Motor Co to develop autonomous driving systems and is in talks to work with health institutions.

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