writes copy 24 Jul 2021

China Roundup: KaiFu Lees first Europe bet WeRide buys a truck startup

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Hello and welcome back to  TechCrunch's China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

Despite the geopolitical headwinds for foreign tech firms to enter China, many companies, especially those that find a dependable partner, are still forging ahead. For this week’s roundup, I’m including a conversation I had with Prophesee, a French vision technology startup, which recently got funding from Kai-Fu Lee and Xiaomi, along with the usual news digest.

Spotting opportunities in China

Like many companies working on futuristic, cutting-edge tech in Europe, Prophesee was a spinout from university research labs. Previously, I covered two such companies from Sweden: Imint, which improves smartphone video production through deep learning, and Dirac, an expert in sound optimization.

The three companies have two things in common: They are all in niche fields, and they have all found eager customers in China.

For Prophesee, they are production lines, automakers and smartphone companies in China looking for breakthroughs in perception technology, which will in turn improve how their robots respond to the environment. So it’s unsurprising that Xiaomi and Chinese chip-focused investment firm Inno-Chip backed Prophesee in its latest funding round, which was led by Sinovation Venture.

The funding size was undisclosed but TechCrunch learned it was in the range of “tens of million USD.” It was also the first investment that Kai-Fu Lee has made through Sinovation in Europe. As Prophesee CEO Luca Verre recalled:

I met Dr. Kai-Fu Lee three years ago during the World Economic Forum '¦ and when I pitched to him about Prophesee, he got very intrigued. And then over the past three years, actually, we kept in touch and last year, given the growing traction we were having in China, particularly in the mobile and IoT industry, he decided to jump in. He said okay, it is now the right timing Prophesee becomes big.

The Paris-based company wasn’t actively seeking funding, but it believed having Chinese strategic investors could help it gain greater access to the complex market.

Rather than sending information collected by sensors and cameras to computing platforms, Prophesee fits that process inside a chip (fabricated by Sony) that mimics the human eyes, a technology that is built upon neuromorphic engineering.

The old method snaps a collection of fixed images so when information grows in volume, a tremendous amount of computing power is needed. In contrast, Prophesee’s sensors, which it describes as “event-based,” only pick up changes in the environment just as the photoreceptors in our eyes and can process information continuously and quickly.

Europe has been pioneering neuromorphic computing, but in recent years, Verre saw a surge in research coming from Chinese universities and tech firms, which reaffirmed his confidence in the market’s appetite.

We see Chinese OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), particularly Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo pushing the standard of quality of image quality to very, very high '¦ They are very eager to adopt new technology to further differentiate in a way which is faster and more aggressive than Apple. Apple is a company with an attitude which to me looks more similar to Huawei. So maybe for some technology, it takes more time to see the technology mature and adopt, which is right very often but later. So I’m sure that Apple will come at certain point with some products integrating event-based technology. In fact, we see them moving. We see them filing patents in the space. I’m sure that will come, but maybe not the first.

Though China is striving for technological independence, Verre believed Prophesee’s addressable market is large enough — $20 billion by his estimate. Nonetheless, he admitted he’d be “naive to believe Prophesee will be the only one to capture” this opportunity.

WeRide bought a truck company

One of China’s most valuable robotaxi startups has just acquired an autonomous trucking company called MoonX. The size of the deal is undisclosed, but we know that MoonX raised “tens of millions RMB” 15 months ago in a Series A round.

While WeRide is focused on Level 4 self-driving technology, it is also finding new monetization avenues before its robotaxis can chauffeur people at scale. It’s done so by developing minibusses, and the MoonX acqui-hire, which brings the company’s founder and over 50 engineers to WeRide, will likely help diversify its revenue pool.

WeRide and MoonX have deep-rooted relationships. Their respective founders, Tony Han and Yang Qingxiong, worked side by side at Jingchi, which was later rebranded to WeRide.  Han co-founded Jingchi and took the helm as CEO in March 2018 while Yang was assigned vice president of engineering. But Yang soon quit and started MoonX.

Han, a Baidu veteran, gave Yang a warm homecoming and put him in charge of the firm’s research institute and its new office in Shenzhen, home to MoonX. WeRide’s sprawling headquarters is just about an hour’s drive away in the adjacent city of Guangzhou.

AI surveillance giant Cloudwalk nears IPO

Cloudwalk belongs to a cohort of Chinese unicorns that flourished through the second half of the 2010s by selling computer vision technology to government agencies across China. Together, Cloudwalk and its rivals SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu were dubbed the “four AI dragons” for their fast ascending valuations and handsome funding rounds.

Of course, the term “AI dragon” is now a misnomer as AI application becomes so pervasive across industries. Investors soon realized these upstarts need to diversify revenue streams beyond smart city contracts, and they’ve been waiting anxiously for exits. Finally, here comes Cloudwalk, which will likely be the first in its cohort to go public.

Cloudwalk’s application to raise 3.75 billion yuan ($580 million) from an IPO on the Shanghai STAR board was approved this week, though it can still be months before it starts trading. The firm’s financials don’t look particularly rosy for investors, with net loss amounting to 720 million yuan in 2020.

Also in the news

  • Speaking of the torrent of news in autonomous driving, vehicle vision provider CalmCar said this week that it has raised $150 million in a Series C round. Founded by several overseas Chinese returnees in 2016, CalmCar uses deep learning to develop ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) used in automotive, industrial and surveillance scenarios. German auto parts maker ZF led the round.
  • Baby clothes direct-to-consumer brand PatPat said it has raised $510 million from Series C and D rounds. The D2C ecosystem leveraging China’s robust supply chains is increasingly gaining interest from venture capitalists. Brands like Shein, PatPat, Cider and Outer have all secured fundings from established VCs. Founded by three Carnegie Mellon grads, PatPat counts IDG Capital, General Atlantic, DST Global, GGV Capital, SIG China and Sequoia China among its investors.

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