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Google invests in Chinese AI start-up Mobvoi

Tue 20 Oct 2015

Google is planning to take a minority stake in Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) start-up Mobvoi, forming part of a $75mn (approx. £48mn) funding round.

The Beijing-based firm develops voice-controlled AI software, as well as software and hardware for smartwatches and other wearable technology.

According to Mobvoi co-founder Yuanyuan Li, the fundraising round values the company at $300mn. The Chinese company is expected to maintain its majority stake. The size of the search giant’s investment has not been revealed.

The deal comes as the U.S. tech giant, now named Alphabet Inc., attempts to reinforce its position in the Chinese internet market. Since its departure from the country in 2010 following censorship concerns and the subsequent banning of many Google services, such as search, email and maps, the company is trying to forge relationships with domestic companies to re-cement its Asian influence.

Three-year-old Mobvoi has previously partnered with Google to develop a Chinese-language voice search for the Android Wear smartwatch operating system (OS). The company was founded by ex-Google translation and voice scientists, CEO Zhifei Li and CTO Mike Lei, and encourages a Google business model. Mobvoi’s product range is very similar to the U.S. firm’s, with its principal mobile voice software, Chumenwenwen, much like the Google Now service.

Its Ticwear ROM also circumvents Chinese restrictions by pairing with Android Wear to enable the Google OS in mainland China. Although its main focus is developing AI software, Mobvoi’s Ticwatch has sold 30,000 units in China, where it is priced at $160-$190 (approx. £103-£123).

In a statement Google VP of corporate development, Don Harrison said: “Mobvoi has developed some very unique speech and natural language processing technologies […] We were impressed by their innovative approach and the early traction that they’ve seen.”

The Chinese firm will use the Series C funding to explore AI integration into vehicles and robotics for smart home applications. It suggested that the new financing would also help in hiring new global talent.

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