A new round brings Prophesee close to $100m in total funds raised to date and aims to help the company crack the critical China market.
China’s economy is roaring back to pre-pandemic levels and has considerable growth potential. For any European company, entering the Chinese market and implementing its business strategy can be a long and perilous process, unless you are inducted by artificial intelligence (AI) guru Kai-Fu Lee.
“It is the recognition of the work that has been done and it is perhaps the beginning of a new phase with new objectives, with each time the challenge of having to progress both on product development and on commercial development,” said Luca Verre, co-founder and CEO of Prophesee, in an interview with EE Times Europe.
7 years, $100 million
The amount of the investment was not disclosed, but a quick calculation provides the answer. In 2019, Prophesee indeed raised €25 million ($28 million) in funding, bringing the total to $68 million since its creation in 2014, and Verre said, “We’re getting very close to a total investment of $100 million.”
China is playing catchup on technology, and many Chinese startups have recently raised hundreds of millions of dollars in seed or Series B funding rounds. So why not clearly announce a circa $30 million funding? For “confidentiality reasons”, and “this is perhaps a first step towards more significant future investments,” Verre said.
Sinovation Ventures, the venture capital firm founded by ex-Google China president Kai-Fu Lee in 2009, has over $2.5 billion assets under management and has invested in several AI unicorns such as Momenta, WeRide, AInnovation, 4Paradigm, and Horizon Robotics.
Could Prophesee become the next unicorn? “I hope so,” Verre answered.
More strategic than financial
Prophesee is Sinovation Ventures’ first investment in Europe as it primarily invests in the China market.
For this round of financing, Prophesee has also received financial support from mobile device supplier Xiaomi and Inno-Chip, an investment firm which has obtained investment and support from Will Semiconductor, owner of OmniVision.
“In terms of shareholding, it’s interesting because we’ve had American investors like Intel and European investors like Bosch, Renault, iBionext, the European Investment Bank, Japanese and now Chinese investors,” said Verre. “This round is more strategic than financial because we weren’t in a fundraising phase.” It is strategic in the sense that Sinovation Ventures has a strong international reputation, a broad network and extensive expertise in AI.
Verre said Sinovation approached Prophesee and, in an unsolicited way, proposed to invest in the company. “I met and have been personally in contact with Kai-Fu Lee. He has been pushing the human-centered AI concept a lot, and I think he was very intrigued by our bio-inspired AI technology and its commercial results that were starting to happen in China.” Subsequently, Lee expressed an interest in investing in Prophesee and helping the company expand in China.
At last year’s International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Prophesee announced a stacked event-based vision sensor jointly developed with Sony. Designed by Prophesee’s event-driven technology, the sensor was built on technologies engineered by Sony for advanced stacked CMOS image sensors.
“The announcement with Sony of our generation 4, ten times smaller than our generation 3, thus a sensor on economic factors much less expensive than the generation 3 and on a dimension which makes the sensor easy to integrate in consumer devices had a strong positive repercussion in China,” said Verre.
Prophesee said it will use the funds to accelerate the development and commercialization of its next generation of hardware and software products. When asked about the current enthusiasm for bringing more intelligence—both AI sensing and AI processing —to the “edge”, Verre replied, “That’s our conviction.”
In an event-based sensor, each pixel is asynchronous and independent. It is no longer governed by a fixed timing source -the frame clock- but by the variations of the signal in the amplitude domain and records when it senses a change or a movement. The information is not transmitted frame by frame. Rather, movement is captured as a continuous stream of information, and nothing is lost between frames.
Cameras are now essential sensors in applications that support autonomy, intelligence, and security. But video generates a lot of data. “That’s where we have a real card to play,” claimed Verre. “With more efficient and intelligent edge computing, we could reduce the amount of redundant and useless data generated by traditional sensors.”
Today, the Paris-based company is active in the mobile and connected devices space, has started working in the Industry 4.0 sector and is considering more and more robotic and drone applications.
China: a growth engine
Prophesee will also use the money to expand its product roadmap to address new and emerging marketing opportunities and develop its operational infrastructure to further scale the company.
“If I want—and I do want—to make Prophesee a global company, we need to succeed in China because it is the most important market for our technology,” Verre claimed.
China is not only the most advanced market in image sensors, but it is also the main market for mobile phones, IoT, robotics, and drones, he continued. The majority of international publications on AI and increasingly on event-based technology come from Chinese universities and research institutes.
China also has this particularity to aggressively adopt new technologies. “Given the momentum they are having, despite Covid-19, and the strong growth in the semiconductor world thanks to strong state support, I think we can find a favorable ecosystem to grow the company.”
Prophesee already has an office in Shanghai and plans to “massively” recruit application engineers and sales representatives by the end of the year and software developers in the near future, said Verre. The priority is to develop a core team that will become an anchor for replicating and attracting new talent.
Prophesee said it will leverage existing partnerships to further strengthen its commercial presence and resources in China to address growing customer demand, as well as develop broader relationships across key ecosystems in semiconductors, industrial, robotics, IoT, and mobile devices. “Announcements will be made with customers by the end of the year,” Verre concluded.
This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.
Anne-Françoise Pelé is editor-in-chief of eetimes.eu and EE Times Europe.