Robotics firm closes $820 million investment, backed by Tencent

Robotics firm closes $820 million investment, backed by Tencent

A humanoid robot manufacturing firm has closed one of the world’s biggest robotics and artificial intelligence investment campaigns.

UBTECH Robotics, which develops a range of robots for consumers, education, and businesses, has raised $820 million in a series C investment round, valuing the company at $5 billion. 

The final investment figure is over double that already announced in December.

The series C round was led by Asia’s most valuable company, the $580 billion Chinese internet and technology investment giant Tencent, which has launched or funded a range of AI, machine learning, and other connected products in recent years.

Other investors include: ICBC; Haier; Minsheng Securities; Telstra; Chia Tai Group; China Minsheng Bank; China Film and TV Capital; CGN; Sichuan Railway Investment Group; Green Pine Capital Partners; Whale Capital; and Shenzhen JinFuZi Network Technology.

The robo-unicorn

Founded in 2012 – on the back of research begun in 2008 – Shenzen, China-based UBTECH was already a ‘unicorn’ startup in 2016, valued at $1 billion. Its US subsidiary, UBTECH North America, is based in Los Angeles.

UBTECH makes a range of robots, which in the West are known as: the Alpha 1 Pro educational humanoid; domestic/entertainment robot Lynx (branded in China as Qrobot Alpha), which was the first home robot to include Amazon’s Alexa assistant; the Jimu robotics kits, which are designed to encourage STEM education in young children; and the cloud-linked, AI- and SLAM-enabled customer service robot, Cruzr (see video).

As one of UBTECH’s leading investors, Shenzen-based Tencent plans to work closely with the company on future product development and launches. The two have already collaborated on several projects.

“We are honoured and gratified by this investment, the exceptionally high quality of our investors, and the strategic initiatives we will be able to launch as we innovate a new era of consumer robots,” said UBTECH CEO, James Zhou.

He explained that the company will invest the money in accelerating its research and development activities, increasing brand awareness, pushing into new territories, and recruiting new talent.

Recent hires include Professor Tao Dacheng from the University of Sydney, as AI chief scientist, and Professor Zhao Mingguo from Tsinghua University, as humanoids chief scientist.

Expansion plans

UBTECH not only wants to expand its range of intelligent humanoid robots and “put a robot in every home”, but also to create bigger ones that are underpinned by motion control algorithms and computer vision technology. The firm is also looking to build an ecosystem of services and content for its robots.

“As technology evolves to include more voice and touch capabilities, people need new devices that communicate and interact more naturally and intuitively at home, at school, and at work,” said Zhou.

“While trends in robots and robotics are developing, no company has yet stepped forward with the resources, vision, and products ecosystem to transform robot fantasy and fiction into robot reality. UBTECH is bringing this reality to life by expanding the possibilities for innovation.”

Internet of Business says

Zhou’s ambition can’t be faulted, and the huge investment in UBTECH certainly gives it the potential to expand beyond a core business that – the Cruzr robot aside – has mainly focused on budget and/or educational robots that blur the line between toys and domestic devices.

But he is overstating UBTECH’s case. Among its many serious competitors on the world stage are China’s Qihan, makers of the Sanbot humanoid and service robot range, and Japan’s SoftBank, owner of Boston Dynamics, and of the NAO, Pepper, and Romeo humanoids originally developed by Aldebaran Robotics. In design terms, at least, the NAO robot would appear to have been an inspiration for UBTECH’s lower-cost Lynx (or Qrobot) machine.

Meanwhile – if rumours are true – another competitor may soon be UBTECH’s technology partner, Amazon.

For more on China’s booming robots sector, and other developments in robotics research, see this selection from our recent reports, below.

Additional reporting: Chris Middleton