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China tech IPOs to watch in 2021

Three of China's four "AI dragons" will likely go public, joined by Didi and major parts of ByteDance.

China tech IPOs to watch in 2021

STR
/ Contributor via Getty Images

A slew of Chinese startups went public in 2020, and it looks like Chinese tech IPOs will keep booming through 2021.

Three of China's "four AI dragons" (AI四小龙) are almost certain to go public this year. Some of China's biggest unicorns, such as ByteDance and Didi Chuxing, are also likely to join them.

Here are the China tech IPOs you need to know for 2021.

Companies gearing up for IPOs

Megvii

One of China's largest facial-recognition developers, Megvii is ready for an IPO on the Shanghai Stock Exchange's STAR board, according to an announcement posted by the China Securities Regulatory Commission in mid-January.

  • What it does: Megvii is often called one of China's "four AI dragons" alongside SenseTime, Yitu and CloudWalk. The Beijing-based company is the creator of the facial-recognition software Face++, the world's largest open-source computer vision platform. The company provides AI technologies to government agencies and enterprises including Alibaba, Lenovo and Huawei. Megvii was placed on the U.S. Department of Commerce's entity list in 2019 for its alleged role in mass surveillance of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
  • Funding: Megvii filed for an IPO in Hong Kong in August 2019, but the application has since expired. In its latest funding round in May 2019, Megvii raised $750 million from investors including Bank of China Group Investment, Alibaba and Australia's Macquarie Group at what Reuters reported was slightly north of a $4 billion valuation.
  • What to watch for: In 2020, Megvii launched Brain++, its own AI productivity platform, and made MegEngine, a major component of Brain++, an open-source deep learning framework. This is largely seen as one element of China's plan to develop home-grown AI tech and reduce Chinese companies' reliance on American open-source frameworks.

Yitu Technology

In November 2020, the Shanghai Stock Exchange accepted Yitu Technology's IPO request. The Shanghai-based AI unicorn intends to raise $1.16 billion.

  • What it does: Yitu claims to have provided AI tech for more than 800 governments and companies across more than 30 Chinese provinces and regions and more than 10 countries and regions outside China. It's also on the U.S. entity list for its alleged role in aiding the Chinese government's abuse of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.
  • Funding: Valued at about $2.2 billion, the company has financial backing from leading VCs such as Sequoia China, Hillhouse Capital, Gaorong Capital and ZhenFund. Yitu plans to issue 36.4 million shares in the form of Chinese Depositary Receipt on the STAR market.
  • Financials: As disclosed in its prospectus, Yitu's revenue was $111 million in 2019, and it reported a net loss of $567 million in the same period.
  • What to watch for: Yitu has made its name in applying AI to the medical industry and is gradually expanding its business to other fields, including security and finance. The company is expected to lead the AI care sector as major Chinese hospitals continue to embed Yitu's AI products into clinical workflows.

CloudWalk Technology

In December 2020, the state-backed facial-recognition developer CloudWalk filed a prospectus with the Shanghai Stock Exchange, seeking to raise roughly $580 million in an IPO on the Star Market.

  • What it does: Founded in 2013, CloudWalk Technology is described as the "state team" (国家队) among the four AI unicorns because so many of its investors are state-owned. Its founder and CEO Zhou Xi came from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Chongqing Research Institute, and a precursor to the company came out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' facial-recognition research team. CloudWalk was added to the U.S. entity list in May 2020 for allegedly participating in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
  • Financials: CloudWalk has also been losing money, just like its competitors. Compared with Yitu, CloudWalk's net profit loss is smaller. During the first half of 2020, its net loss reached approximately $44.5 million, and the 2019 annual net loss was about $265 million. Money-losing AI companies all attribute the net losses to business expansion and increasing investments in R&D. Valued at $3.1 billion, CloudWalk ranks No. 3 among the four AI dragons by valuation, according to the 2020 Hurun Global Unicorn Index.
  • What to watch for: Thanks to its state affiliations, CloudWalk will continue to focus on building projects for Chinese government entities, focusing mainly on fintech, smart security and transportation.

Rumored IPOs

ByteDance's Douyin and Toutiao

Competitor Kuaishou's $5.4 billion IPO has made people wonder just how big ByteDance's IPO could be. Last November, Bloomberg reported ByteDance was in talks with investors, including Sequoia, over funding that would boost its valuation to $180 billion, and was preparing some of its biggest assets — including Douyin and Toutiao — for an IPO in Hong Kong.

  • What it does: ByteDance is the creator of short video-sharing app TikTok, its original Chinese version Douyin and news aggregator Toutiao. The company makes money mainly through advertising, livestreaming and gaming. It has products available in over 150 markets, and has 100,000 employees across 126 offices.
  • Financials: ByteDance is one of the largest Chinese unicorns. While it spent last year at the center of U.S. controversy over data-sharing with Beijing, ByteDance's revenue more than doubled to about $35 billion in 2020, Bloomberg reported. And its operating profit in 2020 grew to around $7 billion, from less than $4 billion the year before.
  • What to watch for: ByteDance has been looking to diversify its revenue stream by expanding its business into fields like education, fintech and SaaS. Last October, ByteDance established an independent education brand, Dali Education (meaning "big power"), whose business encompasses K-12 and adult education software and hardware. Most recently, it reportedly set up a business unit dedicated to expanding the so-called "local life business" in sectors such as culture, tourism and restaurants, where Meituan is winning.

Didi Chuxing

The Information reported on Feb. 3 that China's other large unicorn, Didi Chuxing, is in early discussions with Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase about a potential IPO later in 2021, targeting a $100 billion valuation. Reuters previously reported Didi could go public this year in Hong Kong.

  • What it does: Didi Chuxing is the dominant carpooling startup in China, founded in 2012. It won a costly turf war with Uber China in 2016 by acquiring the American app's China business. Its other businesses include shuttle bus services, bike-sharing, designated driving, auto after-service, delivery and logistics.
  • Financials: Didi Chuxing has been known as a cash-burner; it didn't turn a profit in its first six years. However, according to The Information, it managed to make an annual profit of about $1 billion in 2020, its first time doing so.
  • Funding: Last valued at $56 billion, Didi's backers include SoftBank, Alibaba and Tencent.
  • What to watch for: In 2020, Didi announced an organizational restructuring, consolidating its services outside its core car-hailing business — including bike-sharing and freight — into a newly established "Urban Transportation and Service Business Group." In an attempt to diversify its revenue stream before its IPO, Didi directed much of its internal resources into community group-buying, which uses grassroots intermediaries to distribute groceries across the "last mile." Its CEO Cheng Wei reportedly said in early November that the company's investment in Chengxin Youxuan, Didi's community group-buying service, would not be capped: that the company would "go all out to take the first place in the market."

SenseTime

Tencent News broke the story late January that SenseTime had completed a pre-IPO round of fundraising at the end of 2020 with a valuation of $12 billion. Investors are mostly Chinese state institutions, including state-owned insurance companies and local governments. SenseTime is considering a dual listing in Hong Kong and China, Bloomberg has reported.

  • What it does: SenseTime is China's largest artificial intelligence unicorn by valuation. It has developed and established its own deep-learning platform and supercomputing center for its artificial intelligence technologies, which include facial recognition, image recognition, text recognition, video analysis and remote sensing. SenseTime was among eight Chinese tech companies placed on the U.S. entity list in 2019 for allegedly playing a role in massive human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
  • Funding: SenseTime has been an investor darling over the past few years, and became the world's most valuable AI startup after it raised over $2 billion in 2018, according to Bloomberg. Its investors include SoftBank, Singapore's Temasek Holdings and Alibaba.
  • Financials: According to Caijing, SenseTime's 2019 operating revenue was $780 million, with a gross margin of 43%, which is lower than Megvii's 64.6% and Yitu's 63.9%.
  • What to watch for: Like other AI unicorns, SenseTime has been getting many government contracts to help build smart cities across China. Caijing reported that its smart city revenue reached approximately $258.6 million in 2019 (nearly 33% of its total revenue). Management expected that in 2020, revenue from smart city projects would reach approximately $621.6 million, comprising about 42.7% of total company revenue.

Hellobike

The International Financing Review reported Hellobike is considering a U.S. IPO, seeking to raise up to $1 billion. Chinese-language tech website 36Kr confirmed the bike-sharing company's 2021 IPO plan. It would be China's first bike-sharing company to go public.

  • What it does: Hellobike is a mobility service platform based in Shanghai. Founded in 2016, it started as a bicycle-sharing company, later expanded its services to include rented e-bikes and e-scooters, as well as carpooling. Backed by Ant Financial, the company survived the bike-sharing battle that flared up in 2017. Because of its relationship with Ant, Alipay users can rent Hellobike's bikes without downloading a separate app. Hellobike claims to have 400 million registered users.
  • Funding: iFeng Tech reported Hellobike shed 20% of its value over the pandemic, and that the company is now worth $3.2 billion. Fintech giant Ant Financial is a major investor in Hellobike, which powered the startup through Series D to F funding rounds. Other backers include Primavera Capital Group and Fosun International.
  • What to watch for: Local governments distribute very limited compliance quotas to bike-sharing companies. Since 2019, 80% of Chinese cities have adopted quota systems, according to 36Kr. Bicycle-sharing is a business that requires bike distribution scale. Hellobike, even if it's public, will likely face a considerable regulatory challenge.

Waterdrop

Online health insurance marketplace Waterdrop plans to file for a U.S. IPO in the first quarter of 2021, with an estimated fundraise of about $500 million, according to IPO Zaozhidao, a WeChat public account tracking IPO scoops. Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are among the underwriters. Last summer, Bloomberg reported Waterdrop was seeking a valuation of about $4 billion.

  • What it does: Waterdrop was established in 2016 by Shen Peng, a co-founder of Meituan's meal-delivery unit. The 4-year-old startup focuses on health care crowdfunding. Its major business units include Waterdrop Insurance Mall (its main source of revenue), Waterdrop Mutual Aid (a patient payout platform designed to reduce the financial burden on those afflicted with major injury or disease) and Waterdrop Crowdfunding. Shen Peng boasted more than 250 million paying users across the platforms in 2019. As of September 2020, the cumulative annualized signed premiums of Waterdrop Insurance Mall exceeded $2.8 billion, according to the company. The company has about 140 million users, with 76% from third-tier cities and below.
  • Financials: The startup, which works with China's 30 top insurance companies, announced in August a Series D financing round of over $230 million, co-led by Swiss Re and Tencent. Other backers include IDG Capital, Boyu Capital and Meituan Dianping. TMTPost reported that the valuation of Waterdrop was between $4 billion and $6 billion after its latest round of financing.
  • What to watch for: Waterdrop Mutual Help and Waterdrop Crowdfunding operate somewhat like public services. Waterdrop Crowdfunding allows people to chip in small amounts of money to help those with critical illness, and in return receive payouts when they are in need. But the company is walking on thin ice balancing public welfare and its business interests. The company has encountered scandals where it was accused of mismanaging funds, and a subsidiary was fined last year for deceiving insurers and policyholders and concealing material circumstances related to insurance contracts.

BOSS Zhipin

Internet recruitment platform BOSS Zhipin is working with Goldman Sachs and UBS on a U.S. IPO that could occur this year, with the goal of raising $300 million, according to IPO Zaozhidao.

  • What it does: BOSS Zhipin means BOSS Direct Recruitment. It's a provider of a recruitment mobile application that matches job candidates and applicants directly with recruiters, human resources staff and company executives. Founded in 2013, it also has features such as customized recommendations, online interview scheduling and candidate screening that enable companies to find ideal candidates with increased efficiency.
  • Funding: According to Qichacha, BOSS has finished five rounds of financing, with the latest round co-led by Tencent in late 2019. In 2019, the company was valued at nearly $500 million.
  • Financials: The company says it broke even in 2017, achieved monthly profitability for the first time in November 2017, and has continued to maintain profitability since 2018, with annual revenue exceeding $150 million in 2019.
  • What to watch for: TalkingData's "2020 College Graduate Job Search Research Report" shows that it was one of the most highly-rated job recruitment apps among Chinese college students and graduates. Between May and October 2020, the app's average number of daily active users was 2.8 million, up 80% from a year ago during the same period. More than 45% of its users spent over 20 minutes on the app each visit.
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