Chinese maker of Star Wars robot close to raising US$400m in largest funding round

Investments continue to pour into the AI sector as companies seek to imbue consumer products with smart features such as facial and voice recognition

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 9:07pm

UBTech Robotics, the Chinese maker of Star Wars Stormtrooper robots that can respond to voice commands and recognise faces, is close to raising US$400 million in a funding round led by Tencent, according to people familiar with the matter.

If completed, the series C funding round could value the Shenzhen-based company at about US$4 billion, according to one of the people, who asked not to be identified as the information is private. The funding is still being finalised and details could still change.

It would also be among the biggest rounds of fundraising by a consumer robotics firm, underscoring investor interest in backing companies that are marrying hardware with advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, voice and facial recognition.

UBTech declined to comment, while Tencent didn’t immediately respond to a query.

Companies are raising funds to boost research and development into AI systems that will enhance everything from companion robots to education to autonomous cars. The sector has also attracted interest from overseas companies, with US mobile chip giant Qualcomm Technologies investing an undisclosed sum in Hong Kong-based AI start-up SenseTime Group, which specialises in facial recognition.

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Known for its humanoid robots, UBTech’s latest product is the US$300 Star Wars First Order Stormtrooper Robot – created in partnership with Disney, which owns Lucasfilm, the production company behind the Star Wars franchise. The Stormtrooper robot comes with an app for an augmented reality game that allows the user to look through its eyes and command it to launch “raids” by voice command. The company has begun taking orders for the robot and will begin deliveries later this month.

UBTech previously raised US$20 million in a series A funding round led by Qiming Venture Partners, and US$100 million in a series B funding round in 2016, led by CDH Investments. The company said it became a unicorn – the term given to start-up companies valued at more than US$1 billion – in 2016.

Other UBTech products include the Alpha 1 Pro, which can be programmed to dance, play music and even do yoga. Last July, the company partnered with Apple to sell its Jimu Robot Meebot kit aimed at teaching kids how to code and build robots. UBTech also has a customer service robot called Cruzr that can interact with users to provide directions and information at places like an airport or hotel.

Founded in 2012 by James Chow, known as the “father of robots” in China, the company has plans to introduce a robot that will feature Amazon’s voice control system Alexa, the same system that powers Amazon’s Echo smart speaker.

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For Tencent, the investment in UBTech would be the latest in its push into robotics and education companies. Earlier this month, the Shenzhen-based internet giant and China’s TAL Education invested in California-based robotics start-up Wonder Workshop. It introduced a US$1,000 ET-like robot together with Taiwan’s Asustek Computer in Beijing this week for the mainland market to tap into growing demand for internet-enabled home assistants and companion robots.