After years in the trenches doing research in artificial intelligence, Xu Li says his aha moment came in 2014 when he saw a strong case to create a business with a group of long-standing academic colleagues from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). They formed SenseTime Group at the Hong Kong Science Park that same year, quickly turning it into the world’s hottest AI company and the city’s first hi-tech “unicorn” — a start-up valued at U$1 billion or more — a month ahead of GoGoVan . “As academics, we knew the powerful tool that we had developed,” company chief executive Xu told the South China Morning Post . “When combined with huge volumes of data, our deep learning algorithm helps us establish applications which can surpass human performance, such as in facial recognition.” Deep learning, a subset of a broader family of so-called machine learning technologies, is concerned with algorithms that teach computers to learn by example and perform tasks based on classifying various data, including images, sound and text. Xu, 35, says he was taken back by the pace of the company’s growth since launch. “We expected to have an impact in the industry, but we never imagined how fast we would take off,” said Xu. SenseTime now has more than 400 customers and strategic partners, including China Mobile , HNA Group, Wanda Group, Meitu , graphics processor maker Nvidia, China UnionPay, JD Finance, Sina Weibo, China Merchants Bank, and mainland smartphone giants Huawei Technologies, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. Selfie apps provider Meitu, microblog operator Weibo and Xiaomi use advanced facial recognition systems enabled by SenseTime’s deep learning algorithm. Huawei also uses image recognition technology supported by SenseTime. China Mobile contracted SenseTime to develop its facial, image and text recognition applications. SenseTime also works with the Ministry of Public Security’s Third Research Institute to develop the mainland’s citizen network identity infrastructure. “We first explored mainland China because of the explosive demand in the market, where there is a huge population and big amounts of data being collected,” said Xu. A graduate of Shanghai Jiao Tong University who later obtained his PhD from CUHK in 2010, Xu said SenseTime’s expertise in facial recognition technology led venture capitalists to invest in the company. It now has about 20 different investors. SenseTime’s first major funding round was in December last year, when its raised US$120 million from investors that included Beijing-based CDH Investments, conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, IDG Capital Partners and Star VC. In July this year, the company completed its US$410 million Series B round of funding from investors led by CDH and Sailing Capital. The deal vaulted it to unicorn status with a US$1.5 billion valuation. While many reports have identified SenseTime as a mainland company, Xu said the research done in Hong Kong and the opportunities on the mainland helped it “grow rapidly and become the first tech unicorn” in the city. Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp chief executive Albert Wong Hak-keung said SenseTime has inspired other local tech start-ups to aim high, just like what the company’s 11 co-founders did.