Megvii, the Chinese startup unicorn known for facial recognition tech, files to go public in Hong Kong
Megvii Technology, the Beijing-based artificial intelligence startup known in particular for its facial recognition brand Face++, has filed for a public listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Its prospectus did not disclose share pricing or when the IPO will take place, but Reuters reports that the company plans to raise between $500 million and $1 billion and list in the fourth quarter of this year. Megvii’s investors include Alibaba, Ant Financial and the Bank of China. Its last funding round was a Series D of $750 million announced in May that reportedly brought its valuation to more than $4 billion.
Founded by three Tsinghua University graduates in 2011, Megvii is among China’s leading AI startups, with its peers (and rivals) including SenseTime and Yitu. Its clients include Alibaba, Ant Financial, Lenovo, China Mobile and Chinese government entities.
The company’s decision to list in Hong Kong comes against the backdrop of an economic recession and political unrest, including pro-democracy demonstrations, factors that have contributed to a slump in the value of the benchmark Hang Seng index. Last month, Alibaba reportedly decided to postpone its Hong Kong listing until the political and economic environment becomes more favorable.
Megvii’s prospectus discloses both rapid growth in revenue and widening losses, which the company attributes to changes in the fair value of its preferred shares and investment in research and development. Its revenue grew from 67.8 million RMB in 2016 to 1.42 billion RMB in 2018, representing a compound annual growth rate of about 359%. In the first six months of 2019, it made 948.9 million RMB. Between 2016 and 2018, however, its losses increased from 342.8 million RMB to 3.35 billion RMB, and in the first half of this year, Megvii has already lost 5.2 billion RMB.
Investment risks listed by Megvii include high R&D costs, the U.S.-China trade war and negative publicity over facial recognition technology. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch published a report that linked Face++ to a mobile app used by Chinese police and officials for mass surveillance of Uighurs in Xinjiang, but it later added a correction that said Megvii’s technology had not been used in the app. Megvii’s prospectus alluded to the report, saying that in spite of the correction, the report “still caused significant damages to our reputation which are difficult to completely mitigate.”
The company also said that despite internal measures to prevent misuse of Megvii’s tech, it cannot assure investors that those measures “will always be effective,” and that AI technology’s risks and challenges include “misuse by third parties for inappropriate purposes, for purposes breaching public confidence or even violate applicable laws and regulations in China and other jurisdictions, bias applications or mass surveillance, that could affect user perception, public opinions and their adoption.”
From a macroeconomic perspective, Megvii’s investment risks include the restrictions and tariffs placed on Chinese exports to the U.S. as part of the ongoing trade war. It also cited reports that Megvii is among the Chinese tech companies the U.S. government may add to trade blacklists. “Although we are not aware of, nor have we received any notification, that we have been added as a target of any such restrictions as of the date this Document, the existence of such media reports itself has already damaged our reputation and diverted our management’s attention,” the prospectus said. “Whether or not we will be included as a target for economic and trade restrictions is beyond our control.”