Korean conglomerate SK leads $600M round for Chinese chipmaker Horizon Robotics

Horizon Robotics, a three-year-old Chinese startup backed by Intel Capital, just raised a mega-round of funding from domestic and overseas backers as it competes for global supremacy in developing AI solutions and chips aimed at autonomous vehicles, smart retail stores, surveillance equipment and other devices for everyday scenarios.

The Beijing-based company announced Wednesday in a statement that it hauled in $600 million in a Series B funding round led by SK China, the China subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate SK Group; SK Hynix, SK’s semiconductor unit; and a number of undisclosed Chinese automakers along with their funds.

The capital and strategic investors gleaned from this round will help ramp up Horizon’s efforts in research and development as well as commercialization, the company told TechCrunch in a statement. What that means is it will continue to double down on so-called “edge computing,” the solution that is key to all connected devices that require real-time feedback, as the technology processes data from the edge of a network instead of the center. When it comes to money-making, Horizon says it hopes to enlist more partners across all sectors.

The fresh capital drove Horizon’s valuation to at least $3 billion, the company claims. The Financial Times previously reported that the chipmaker was raising up to $1 billion in a funding round that could value it at as much as $4 billion. Such a price tag could perhaps be justified by the vast amount of resources China has poured into the red-hot sector as part of a national push to shed dependency on imported chips and work toward what analysts call “semiconductor sovereignty.”

In 2015, Yu Kai left Baidu as the Chinese search engine giant’s deep learning executive and founded Horizon to make the “brains” for a broad spectrum of connected devices. In doing so, Yu essentially set himself up for a race against industry veterans like Intel and Nvidia. To date, the startup has managed to make a dent by securing government contracts, which provide a stable source of income for China’s AI upstarts, including SenseTime, and several big-name clients like SK’s telecommunication unit, which is already leveraging Horizon’s algorithms to develop smart retail solutions. Like many of its peers who are at the forefront of the AI race, Horizon has set up an office in Silicon Valley, hiring local talent for its lab.

Other investors that joined the round include several of Horizon’s returning investors, such as Hillhouse Capital and Morningside Venture Capital. There were also some heavyweight new backers, such as a fund run by conglomerate China Oceanwide Holdings, as well as the CSOBOR Fund, a private equity entity set up by China’s state-owned CITIC to back projects pertaining to China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” modern Silk Road initiative.

Updated on February 28, 2018, 11:30 am with more details of the funding round.