Temasek-backed AI start-up SenseTime plans to triple staff in Singapore to 300 within 3 years

Xu Li, CEO of SenseTime Group Ltd, speaking at the Bloomberg Sooner Than You Think technology event in Singapore on Sept 5, 2019. SenseTime, the world’s largest AI start-up, says its valuation has surpassed US$7.5 billion this year. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - SenseTime Group Ltd's valuation surpassed US$7.5 billion (S$10.38 billion) this year after securing investment from backers like SoftBank Group Corp, yet the world's largest artificial intelligence start-up said it's in no hurry to go public.

The AI giant is now shoring up its presence in South-east Asia via Singapore. It plans to triple its staff in Singapore within three years to about 300 people, said chief executive officer Xu Li. That's a boost to the island nation, which is positioning itself as a hub for AI research and development as the US and China spar over trade. SenseTime, which has the backing of Singapore state investment firm Temasek Holdings, moved into new digs this year and is collaborating with a local university as well as its Education Ministry.

The Chinese start-up has also been hosting regular roadshows around the world to educate investors on a business that now runs the gamut from facial recognition to robot delivery, Xu told Bloomberg's Sooner Than You Think conference in Singapore. It's using the funds raised to drive forays into areas such as semiconductors, spending the past two years developing an artificial intelligence training chip that Xu said may complement industry-leading products from Nvidia Corp.

Backed by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, SenseTime is the largest of a clutch of Chinese AI behemoths that may be in Washington's cross-hairs. The US fears their close relationship with Beijing, but Mr Xu said SenseTime doesn't do business directly with the government, doesn't own nor access customers' data, and that collaboration with the public sector is focused mainly on developing a code of AI ethics.

"Being a leading company, we should have the responsibility to collaborate with the government and regulator to come up with regulations," Xu told the conference. He emphasised that SenseTime will never try to access customer information, which belongs to the client.

Chinese AI has raised hackles in Washington like almost no other segment of the country's vast corporate machine, in part because of the welter of headlines proclaiming how it may soon surpass the US. Broadly defined as anything from autonomous driving and robot waiters to facial recognition systems, names like Megvii Technology Ltd and SenseTime are showing the way for the nascent industry - but some could become potential targets for an America-first administration.

SenseTime's stupendous growth helps underscore the remarkable rise of Chinese technology - the company was most recently valued at US$4.5 billion, according to CB Insights. Xu said the start-up's revenue is still growing at triple-digit percentages, though it remains cash-flow-negative because of the need to invest in new areas such as AI chipmaking. Its silicon is mainly developed in-house but it's also investing in start-ups involved in chip development, Xu said.

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