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AI Unicorn SenseTime in no Rush for an IPO

Posted on Monday, Jan 13th 2020

According to IHS Markit, the global video surveillance market is expected to grow 10% and cross $20 billion in 2020. The growth is estimated to be driven by the growing need for enhanced surveillance and monitoring at public places driven by government regulations and concerns about safety. China accounts for about 45% of the market and Chinese AI unicorn SenseTime dominates the market.

SenseTime’s Offerings

SenseTime was founded in October 2014 by Tang Xiao’ou, a professor of the Department of Information Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and computer scientist Xu Li.

Hong Kong and Beijing-based SenseTime develops deep-learning based software for facial recognition, autonomous driving, and video analyzing. Its face recognition technology claims to have an error rate below one in 100,000. It also provides text, vehicle, and image recognition to mobile Internet companies, financial services, and security companies.

Its client list includes over 700 global companies, partners, and alliances including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Qualcomm, Nvidia, Honda, Alibaba, Suning, China Mobile, UnionPay, Wanda, Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, Weibo, iFLYTEK, and JD.com as well as various police departments across China.

Facial recognition technology is rampantly used in China. Out of the top 10 most-surveilled cities, eight are in China. China’s installed base of surveillance cameras was 349 million in 2018, up from 210 million in 2015 and is expected to reach 567 million by 2021. U.S. installed base of surveillance cameras is expected to grow to 85 million by 2021.

SenseTime’s Financials

SenseTime was among the eight Chinese tech firms that were blacklisted in October last year by the US government for allegedly using its technology for human rights abuses. It is barred from buying U.S. components without U.S. government approval. Despite the blacklist, SenseTime expects its 2019 revenue to increase by over 200% to $750 million.

SenseTime has so far raised over $3 billion from investors including Temasek Holdings, Alibaba Group, SoftBank Vision Fund, HOPU Investment Management Company, Qualcomm Ventures, Morningside Venture Capital, Silver Lake Partners, Tiger Global Management, Fidelity International, Suning.com, Sailing Capital, CDH Investments, StarVC, and IDG Capital. In its last round of financing which was led by Softbank, it was valued at $7.5 billion. An earlier round in 2018 had valued the company at $4.5 billion.

SenseTime is using the funds to invest in new areas like AI chip making. The company’s silicon is mainly developed in-house, but it’s also investing in startups involved in chip development.

Although SenseTime dominates the market, it is far from being alone. Its Chinese rivals include Megvii (Face++) and Yitu, which were also blacklisted. Megvii’s IPO plans were upset following the blacklist, but it recently got the approval for an IPO in Hong Kong.

SenseTime is in no rush to go public and is treading carefully. That’s a sensible decision in the current scenario. The AI market is subject to not just the US China trade tensions, but it is also likely to undergo regulatory changes that are bound to vary across nations.

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