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Artificial intelligence

Will this robot start-up be the next Tencent in the era of artificial intelligence?

Tencent’s ex-tech chief has led a US$53.6 million funding round in Roobo, a Chinese robot start-up

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 10:51pm

Seven Seas Partners, a venture capital firm founded by Tencent Holdings’ former chief technology officer, has led a 350 million yuan (US$53.6 million) funding round in a Chinese start-up, betting big to find the next Chinese tech giant in the robot sector.

The funding for Roobo, a Beijing start-up that sells conversational service robots, would lift the firm’s valuation close to that of a unicorn – private companies valuated at US$1 billion or more, according to the company’s chief executive Liu Yingbo.

Apart from the capital injection announced on Wednesday, Jeff Xiong Minghua, who was Tencent’s CTO for eight years until his departure from the social networking giant in 2013, will also serve as the chairman of the board of Roobo.

“I really hope that I can find and cultivate the next Tencent in China. The thing that I regretted most when leaving Tencent was that I didn’t help turn the company into a truly globalised company, ” said Xiong. He said the artificial intelligence (AI) era provided China with real opportunities to produce global companies.

Companies with multibillion-dollar valuation are very likely to be those involved in service robotics and the Internet of Things, as Xiong estimates that there will be 10 billion smart devices in use in China, with more hardware – from home appliances to cars – being connected to the internet.

The investment comes amid the rising interest in AI in China, where the central government has unveiled a top-down nationwide plan in July through a three-step approach to become a global AI leader by 2030.

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The use of AI is spreading widely across the country, from voice-controlled robots and home appliances to apps that use machine learning to mine huge volumes of data to tailor to individuals’ daily needs, anything from transport to reading.

The thing that I regretted most when leaving Tencent was that I didn’t help turn the company into a truly globalised company
Jeff Xiong, Seven Seas Partners

With Xiong joining its board, Roobo has also announced its transformation from an AI product company to an AI platform company that provides AI solutions ranging from chips, operating systems to cloud services to allow home appliance makers and robot producers to tap into their technologies to build their own AI products.

“Money is not an issue for us. What we want is to bring Jeff’s experience and vision in tech industry to make us into a big player in China and abroad,” said Liu, Roobo’s chief executive.

Liu said the company’s monthly revenue this year had almost reached its full year revenue for 2016, without giving further details.

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Founded in 2014, Roobo, which sold more than 100,000 robots in 2016, is one of the earliest tech companies focusing on AI in China. The company closed a US$100 million funding round in 2016, led by the Shenzhen-listed iFlyTek, a leader of speech and language recognition in China.