SoftBank fund seeks investment in Chinese AI giant SenseTime
Founded in the Hong Kong Science Park in 2014, SenseTime has already raised more than US$1.2 billion in two funding rounds this year
SoftBank Vision Fund is seeking to invest almost US$1 billion in SenseTime Group as it seeks a stake in the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence (AI) start-up, people familiar with the matter said.
The fund, created by Japanese multinational conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp, and SenseTime are still finalising terms of the deal and the details could still change, the people said, asking not to be identified as the details are private.
SenseTime, a four-year-old start-up established in the Hong Kong Science Park, has already announced two other funding rounds this year that helped it raise more than US$1.2 billion.
The company makes systems that analyse faces and images on a huge scale, and contributes to China’s vast surveillance system. It is one of a host of local start-ups at the forefront of Beijing’s goal of making the country the world leader in AI by 2030.
Tokyo-based SoftBank has made China one of the main destinations for the Vision Fund, a near US$100-billion pool of money that has become the world’s largest technology investor.
The fund has already backed sectors as diverse as robotics, ride-hailing, e-commerce and semiconductors. It has put billions into Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and has taken a stake in Hong Kong-listed ZhongAn Online P&C Insurance Co.
SenseTime fits into SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s vision to invest in a future dominated by AI and data.
SoftBank had spent US$32 billion in 2016 to acquire ARM Holdings, the chip designer that Son believes will be a linchpin in the development of AI.
SenseTime declined to comment, and a representative for the SoftBank Vision Fund did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
SoftBank would join some of the biggest names in technology and investment if the deal goes ahead. Qualcomm backed SenseTime last year, while Alibaba Group Holding and Temasek Holdings joined the start-up’s US$600-million funding round in April. New York-listed Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.
Fidelity International, Silver Lake and Tiger Global Management took part in a June financing that raised US$620 million, and boosted SenseTime’s valuation to more than US$4.5 billion.
Beyond facial recognition and identity verification, SenseTime is pushing into autonomous driving and augmented reality. The company is developing a service code-named “Viper” to parse data from thousands of live camera feeds – a platform it expects will prove invaluable in mass surveillance.