China’s AI giant SenseTime readies Hong Kong IPO

One of China’s biggest AI solution providers is a step closer to its initial public offering. SenseTime has received regulatory approval to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, according to media reports.

Founded in 2014, SenseTime was christened as one of China’s four “AI Dragons” alongside Megvii, CloudWalk and Yitu. In the second half of the 2010s, their algorithms found much demand from businesses and governments hoping to turn real-life data into actionable insights. Cameras embedded with their AI models watch city streets 24 hours a day. Malls use their sensing solutions to track and predict crowds on the premises.

SenseTime’s three rivals have all mulled plans to sell shares either in mainland China or Hong Kong. Megvii is preparing to list on China’s Nasdaq-style STAR board after its HKEX application lapsed.

The window for China’s data-rich tech firms to list overseas has narrowed. Beijing is making it harder for companies with sensitive data to go public outside China. And regulators in the West are wary of facial recognition companies that could aid mass surveillance.

But in the past few years, China’s AI upstarts were sought after by investors all over the world. In 2018 alone, SenseTime racked up more than $2 billion in investment. To date, the company has raised a staggering $5.2 billion in funding through 12 rounds. Its biggest outside shareholders include SoftBank Vision Fund and Alibaba’s Taobao. For its flotation in Hong Kong, SenseTime plans to raise up to $2 billion, according to Reuters.

SenseTime spends a large chunk of its capital on research and development, which cost it more than 5 billion yuan ($780 million) between 2018 and 2020, according to its prospectus. The company recorded net losses for the past four years, largely due to “the fair value losses of our preferred shares.” Its net losses reached 3.7 billion yuan in the first half of 2021. Total deficits neared 23 billion yuan as of June.

Like its peers, SenseTime relied on “smart city” projects for monetization. The business comprised 47.6% of its total revenues of 1.65 billion yuan in the six months ended June, up from a share of 27% in the same period of 2020. The number of cities using SenseTime’s software platform reached 119 by June, according to the firm’s prospectus.

The “Smart Business” line, which is tailored to commercial space, residential property, and other enterprise needs, made up about 40% of its revenues in the first half of this year. The firm derived the rest of its revenues from the “Smart Life” unit, which supplies to IoT devices, and “Smart Auto”, which applies perception intelligence to autonomous driving solutions.