As 2022 begins, the biggest question for China IPO watchers is: Will there still be any significant IPOs this year worth anticipating?
For them, 2021 was divided into two halves: The first six months were filled with ambitious Chinese companies listing overseas, culminating in ride-hailing giant DiDi’s IPO on June 30, but it was all downhill from there. In the wake of DiDi’s rushed IPO, Chinese regulators imposed harsh cybersecurity reviews on several companies that were about to go public. Others put their IPO plans on hold. Stock markets reacted accordingly: Alibaba, Pinduoduo and others saw their share prices slashed in half.
And yet many investors and analysts still believe there will be notable IPOs. “China tech IPO in the U.S. may not be as vibrant this year, but it will not stop Chinese companies from going public in Hong Kong or Shanghai,” Edith Yeung, general partner at Race Capital, told Protocol.
Chinese companies are better prepared now with lessons from DiDi’s failure. Beijing has also formalized the cybersecurity review process, making it mandatory for more businesses. That process has in turn reduced uncertainty and allowed companies to better assess the risks and rewards of going public.
“The regulatory risk overhang around Chinese tech names is likely to persist into 2022,” said Mohammad Hassan, associate director of Dividend Forecasting at IHS Markit. “But it appears that companies are getting better at reading and sensing the regulatory mood to self-correct — which should hopefully eliminate any major regulatory surprises and improve investor confidence.”
That said, most of the IPO activity is expected to happen in Hong Kong. The U.S. capital market is still desirable for Chinese tech companies, but seemingly out of reach at this moment. “No matter from the perspective of valuation size, market maturity, number of institutional investors or liquidity, the U.S. is still the most friendly to tech companies,” Bo Pei, senior equity research analyst at US Tiger Securities, told Protocol. “The Hong Kong Stock Exchange is only the second-best choice.”
After the regulator sent clear signals to encourage listing in Hong Kong rather than the U.S., a few companies, including DiDi, made the switch. Artificial intelligence company SenseTime, sandwiched between Chinese domestic pressures and U.S. sanctions, successfully debuted in Hong Kong in December, also setting an example for its peers.
One extremely 2021 product may still come to the rescue for Chinese companies longing for U.S. investors: SPACs. “If 600 empty shell companies are chasing companies to list within 24 months, many [Chinese] companies will be considered targets for these SPACs,” said Yeung. That’s particularly true for Chinese enterprise tech companies, which are not as beholden to sensitive data privacy concerns as consumer-facing businesses are.
Here are some Chinese tech IPOs to watch for, amid all the restrictions and workarounds, in 2022.
The prepared ones
Some Chinese companies are more than ready to go public: They have already gone through all the IPO preparation steps in the U.S., only to withdraw their applications at the last minute. For them, the easiest way to keep the momentum is to quickly turn to Hong Kong, like audio streaming platform Ximalaya did in September.
- What it does: Dating and socializing app Soul differentiates itself from other platforms by discouraging users from sharing their real photos. By prioritizing spiritual, rather than physical, attraction, Soul attracted a niche fanbase of more than 30 million active users among China’s youth. The prevalent use of animated profiles also gave Soul a leg up in the recent industry obsession over the metaverse, and the company chose to greatly emphasize that metaverse connection in its May prospectus to list on Nasdaq.
- Financials: According to the prospectus, Soul’s 2020 annual revenue was 498 million RMB ($76.3 million), seven times that of 2019. It was aiming to raise up to $227.7 million at a valuation of over $1 billion. Soul’s biggest investor is Tencent, which owns 49.9% of the company (though it holds only 25.7% of the voting power).
- What to watch for: Soul officially suspended its U.S. listing application in June, citing “the possibility of other capital operations.” While it is reportedly turning to the HKEX, there is also speculation that Tencent may acquire the company in full to boost its metaverse portfolio.
- What it does: We reported on Chinese bike-sharing company Hello in depth, both in last year’s tech IPO prediction and when the company filed to list on Nasdaq last April. But in July, it joined other Chinese companies and abandoned its U.S. listing application.
- Financials: The only public valuation of the company — $5 billion — came from its co-founder in 2019. And according to its prospectus, Alibaba-affiliate Ant Group owned 36.3% of Hello.
- What to watch for: After Hello canceled its U.S. IPO plans, it raised a fresh round of $280 million from Alibaba, pushing its valuation higher. Hello is likely to try going public in Hong Kong, but its business model, which involves millions of users and the collection of GPS location data, makes the company susceptible to government cybersecurity reviews.
- What it does: The Hong Kong-based “Uber for deliveries” startup is now China’s largest intra-city freight delivery company, with a dominant market share of 54.7%. Catering to the need of China’s 800 million urban residents, Lalamove could have gone public much earlier if it had not been engulfed by a controversy in early 2021, when a young woman died after jumping out of the moving truck she hired, fearing potential malice from the driver.
- Financials: Lalamove has completed eight rounds of funding so far and was last valued at $10 billion in January 2021. But the controversy may have negatively impacted investors’ confidence in the company. It is mostly backed by well-known VC firms such as Sequoia and Hillhouse.
- What to watch for: Lalamove was reported to have confidentially filed for listing in the U.S. in June 2021, but then the DiDi saga took place, and Lalamove quickly began preparing a Hong Kong IPO instead. Several other Chinese logistics companies, including Manbang and JD Logistics, did manage to go public successfully in 2021, so Lalamove may have lost the capital market momentum for delivery companies. But listing in its home city could make the process easier.
- What it does: Over the past eight years, the social media app has broken out of Weibo and WeChat’s shadows and grown into one of China’s most popular online platforms. With more than 200 million monthly active users, it’s young people’s preferred platform for FOMO content — sharing Instagram-style visuals of food, hobbies, travels and more — which also makes it a prime marketing channel for influencers and brands.
- Financials: Xiaohongshu is valued between $18 and $20 billion, according to different reports. In November 2021, it completed a $500 million round of funding with contributions from Alibaba, Tencent and Temasek Holdings.
- What to watch for: In October, Bloomberg reported Xiaohongshu changed its plan from listing in the U.S. to Hong Kong. Xiaohongshu, which has both social media and ecommerce functions, enjoys the heightened attention on both industries. On one side, it proves that even in China’s saturated and heavily censored social media sector, a startup can still ascend and become a powerful player. On the other side, Xiaohongshu could be yet another success story for China’s booming and fast-changing ecommerce sector.
- What it does: Beijing-based Horizon Robotics designs AI microchips that are mostly used in autonomous vehicles. It claims to be the first Chinese company that can mass-produce AI chips for cars and has worked with many automakers, including Audi and SAIC Motor.
- Financials: In just the six months from December 2020 to June 2021, Horizon Robotics completed seven rounds of fundraising amounting to at least $1.2 billion (three rounds were kept confidential). In the end, the company was reportedly valued at $5 billion. Intel was one of Horizon Robotics’ earliest investors, with several automakers, top VCs and Jack Ma’s private investment firm Yunfeng Capital also on the list.
- What to watch for: The ongoing global chip shortage has made auto chip companies extremely popular with investors. As Beijing seeks to build up semiconductor independence, companies like Horizon Robotics are also set to benefit from more favorable domestic policies, something that most other tech companies on this list can’t claim. While the company talked about listing on China's domestic STAR market back in 2020, Bloomberg reported last year that it was first planning to raise $1 billion in the U.S.: Later, it decided to try listing in Hong Kong instead.
Leapmotor, Neta, WM Motor
- What they do: The Chinese electric vehicle industry is so crowded right now that startups are going public in groups of three. This trio of young startups seeks to follow the footsteps of predecessors NIO, Xpeng and Li Auto — the first set of Chinese EV startups that all listed in the U.S.
- Financials: These companies are in a deadlocked competition now: They’ve all delivered somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 EVs in 2021 — fewer than the A-list batch, but many more than other brands. They have all completed massive fundraising rounds in the past year, a sign for imminent IPOs. News that all three were considering listing in Hong Kong broke during the same six-week span last fall.
- What to watch for: The three companies are clearly hoping that a good response in the capital market can in turn help them win the race of operations. But so far it’s hard to predict who’s going to IPO first or whose stocks will perform the best. The Chinese EV market is still growing quickly, so this can be a situation where the rising tide lifts all boats up.
- What it does: TikTok’s parent company has been on IPO wishlists for years, but its phenomenal growth has been shadowed by geopolitical tensions and regulatory uncertainties. ByteDance would therefore need to be very careful about timing an IPO to avoid reenacting the DiDi chaos. The question is, will it be overly cautious and miss the best time for taking the company public? Yeung believes the company will go public in 2022. “ByteDance is one of the most successful Chinese companies that have a world stage presence and truly capture the hearts and minds of not only Chinese but global audiences. The world is watching. This is going to be the most highly anticipated IPO since Alibaba,” she said.
- Financials: ByteDance’s valuation on private markets has gone as high as $400 billion, above Alibaba’s current market cap but below Tencent’s. However, the company’s internal stakes buy-back plan values the company at about $200 billion. It could also be affected by China’s tutoring ban last year, as ByteDance had pivoted much of its resources to developing its ed-tech business. Whichever number is closer to the final valuation, it would undoubtedly be the biggest IPO of any Chinese company in 2022.
- What to watch for: ByteDance is not just about TikTok: It’s a corporation with many product offerings, including algorithm-powered news-reader app Toutiao, workplace messaging platform Lark and ill-fated ed-tech arm Dali. When ByteDance inevitably goes public, the more interesting question is whether TikTok will be a part of it at all. The geopolitical tensions around TikTok in 2020 have put ByteDance in an awkward position where spinning off its most successful product could save the company from national security concerns, both in the U.S. and Beijing. But are investors still interested in a TikTok-less ByteDance?
- What it does: Ant Group was supposed to be the most important tech IPO of 2020. Instead, it was called off at the last minute, marking the beginning of China’s strict tech regulation era. The IPO has remained suspended for so long that most people don’t remember it anymore, but some investors are hopeful that after laying low for a full year and swallowing a record-high $2.8 billion fine for monopolistic behaviors, maybe Alibaba can finally finish the Ant Group IPO this year.
- Financials: Once “the deal of a lifetime,” Ant Group’s onetime $280 billion valuation has been cut in half or even lower following China’s sustained tech crackdowns. It’s in the middle of a complete overhaul ordered by financial regulators, which includes breaking up its operations and turning over proprietary data. All of these actions will negatively impact Ant Group’s future prospects.
- What to watch for: The original state approval Ant Group acquired to list in Shanghai and Hong Kong expired last October, meaning the company would have to go through all the required steps again to start an IPO process. When it happens, it definitely won’t be as grand as the 2020 version, but Ant Group’s sheer size still makes it an important event for the fintech industry. But Ant Group will have to prove that it can still be an innovator and maintain its edge while under strict financial regulations.