China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

Jack Ma’s Ant called to end anti-competition in payments

The details for Ant’s restructuring plan after its IPO was called off have arrived. Ant Group, the fintech affiliate of Alibaba controlled by Jack Ma, will be restructuring as a financial holding company, China’s central bank said on Monday.

Ant, which provides online infrastructure for payments and other financial services, needs to “correct its anti-competitive practices” and “give consumers more options in payments methods,” the regulator said. It should also end its monopoly on user information.

More to come…

China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B

Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its tech industry. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba. SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its merchants to sell on one of the two main e-commerce sites in China instead of letting them choose freely.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with fines for violating anti-competition practices. The meager sums of these punishments were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that the antitrust campaign is getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If passed, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

This is a developing story.

Chinese hardware makers turn to crowdfunding as they look to go global

China’s tech giants have had a rough time in Western markets over the last few years. Huawei and DJI have been hit by trade restrictions, while TikTok and WeChat are threatened with their apps being banned in the U.S. Overall, Chinese companies with an overseas footprint are increasingly wary of rising geopolitical tensions.

But at an event hosted by California-based crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for Chinese consumer product makers in Shenzhen, businesses from sizes ranging from a startup making portable power stations to 53-year-old home appliances behemoth Midea, listened attentively as Indiegogo’s China managers shed light on how to court Western consumers.

“The first stage is to let ourselves be heard by the world. We have done that,” Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs. “Next, we will bravely ride the tide and accept the challenge of coming the brands loved by users around the world.”

For Midea, “crowdfunding gives us a very direct way to understand consumers,” said Chen Zhenrui, who oversees the group’s overseas e-commerce initiative. Platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are ways for individuals and organizations to raise capital from a large number of people to fund a project. In most cases, backers get perks or rewards from the project they fund.

Midea raised $1.5 million last year for a new air conditioner unit launched on Indiegogo, an almost negligible amount compared to the 280 billion yuan ($42 billion) annual revenue it generated in 2019. But the support from its 3,600 backers on Indiegogo was more a proof of concept.

Within a few weeks, Midea learned that a compact air conditioner that saddles snugly on the window sill, blocks out noise and saves energy could entice many American consumers. Like other established Chinese home appliances makers, Midea had been exporting for several decades.

But “in the past, much of our overseas business was in the traditional, B2B export realm. I think we are still far from being a world-class brand,” said Chen.

When Midea first launched on Indiegogo, a user left comments on its campaign page calling the project a scam: How could a Fortune Global 500 company be on Indiegogo?

“Through rounds of communication, we got to know each other. That user gave us a big push,” Chen recalled, adding that Midea used a dozen of suggestions from Indiegogo backers to improve its product.

Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs to develop brands loved by global users. Photo: TechCrunch

More and more traditional manufacturers from China are giving crowdfunding a shot. Padmate, based in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, built a new earbud brand called Pamu from its foundation as a white-label maker of sound systems.

Edison Shen, a director at Padmate, said that traditional export was getting harder as old-school distributors became squeezed by new retail channels like e-commerce. By creating their own brands and reaching consumers directly, factories could also improve profit margins. Padmate went on Indiegogo in 2018 and raised over $6.6 million in one of its wireless headphone campaigns.

Most of the projects on Indiegogo will go beyond the 9-million-backer crowdfunding site onto mainstream platforms, listing on Amazon as well as advertising on Google and Facebook. Though the core services of these American Big Tech firms aren’t available in China, they have all set up some form of operational presence in China, whether it’s stationing staff in the country like Amazon or working through local ad resellers like Facebook.

Indiegogo itself opened its China office in Shenzhen five years ago and has since seen China-based projects raise over $300 million through its platform, according to Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy. China is now the company’s fastest-growing market and accounted for over 40% of the campaigns that raised over $1 million in 2020.

Kickstarter, a rival to Indiegogo, also saw a surge in projects from China, which reached a record $60.5 million in funding in 2020. The Brooklyn-based company recently began looking for a contractor in Shenzhen or the adjacent city Hong Kong to help it research the Chinese market.

“In recent years, more Chinese companies are getting the hang of crowdfunding and taking their brand global, so ‘blockbuster’ campaigns [from China] are also on the rise,” observed Li.

Beyond Meat opens its first production plant in China

About a year after Beyond Meat debuted in China on Starbucks’s menu, the Californian plant-based protein company opened a production facility near Shanghai to tap the country’s supply chain resources and potentially reduce the carbon footprint of its products.

Situated in Jiaxing, a city 85 km from Shanghai, the plant is Beyond Meat’s first end-to-end manufacturing facility outside the U.S., the Nasdaq-listed company said in an announcement on Wednesday.

Over the past year, competition became steep in China’s alternative protein space with the foray of foreign players like Beyond Meat and Eat Just, as well as a slew of capital injections for domestic startups including Hey Maet and Starfield.

Beyond Meat doesn’t flinch at the rivalry. When asked by TechCrunch to comment on a story about China’s alternative protein scene, a representative of the company said “there are none that Beyond Meat considers their competitors.”

China not only has an enormous, unsaturated market for meat replacements; it’s also a major supplier of plant-based protein. Chinese meat substitute startups enjoy a cost advantage from the outset and don’t lack interest from investors who race to back consumer products that are more reflective of the tastes of the rising middle class.

Having some kind of manufacturing capacity in China is thus almost a prerequisite for any serious foreign player. Tesla has done it before to build Gigafactory in Shanghai to deliver cheaper electric vehicles. Localized production also helps companies advance their sustainability goals as it shortens the supply chain.

In Beyond Meat’s own words, the Jiaxing facility is “expected to significantly increase the speed and scale in which the company can produce and distribute its products within the region while also improving Beyond Meat’s cost structure and sustainability of operations.”

The American food-tech giant works hard on localization, selling in China both its flagship burger patties and an imitation minced pork product made specifically for the world’s largest consumer of pork. The soy- and rice-based minced pork could be used in a wide range of Chinese cuisines and is the result of a collaboration between the firm’s Shanghai and Los Angeles teams.

Besides production, the Jiaxing plant will also take on R&D responsibilities to invent new products for the region. Beyond Meat will also be unveiling its first owned manufacturing facility in Europe this year.

“We are committed to investing in China as a region for long-term growth,” said Ethan Brown, CEO and founder of Beyond Meat. “We believe this new manufacturing facility will be instrumental in advancing our pricing and sustainability metrics as we seek to provide Chinese consumers with delicious plant-based proteins that are good for both people and planet.”

Beyond Meat products can now be found in Starbucks, KFC, Alibaba’s Hema supermarket and other retail channels across major Chinese cities.

Former Amazon exec gives Chinese firms a tool to fight cyber threats

China is pushing forward an internet society where economic and public activities increasingly take place online. In the process, troves of citizen and government data get transferred to cloud servers, raising concerns over information security. One startup called ThreatBook sees an opportunity in this revolution and pledges to protect corporations and bureaucracies against malicious cyberattacks.

Antivirus and security software has been around in China for several decades, but until recently, enterprises were procuring them simply to meet compliance requests, Xue Feng, founder and CEO of six-year-old ThreatBook, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Starting around 2014, internet accessibility began to expand rapidly in China, ushering in an explosion of data. Information previously stored in physical servers was moving to the cloud. Companies realized that a cyber attack could result in a substantial financial loss and started to pay serious attention to security solutions.

In the meantime, cyberspace is emerging as a battlefield where competition between states plays out. Malicious actors may target a country’s critical digital infrastructure or steal key research from a university database.

“The amount of cyberattacks between countries is reflective of their geopolitical relationships,” observed Xue, who oversaw information security at Amazon China before founding ThreatBook. Previously, he was the director of internet security at Microsoft in China.

“If two countries are allies, they are less likely to attack one another. China has a very special position in geopolitics. Besides its tensions with the other superpowers, cyberattacks from smaller, nearby countries are also common.”

Like other emerging SaaS companies, ThreatBook sells software and charges a subscription fee for annual services. More than 80% of its current customers are big corporations in finance, energy, the internet industry, and manufacturing. Government contracts make up a smaller slice. With its Series E funding round that closed 500 million yuan ($76 million) in March, ThreatBook boosted its total capital raised to over 1 billion yuan from investors including Hillhouse Capital.

Xue declined to disclose the company’s revenues or valuation but said 95% of the firm’s customers have chosen to renew their annual subscriptions. He added that the company has met the “preliminary requirements” of the Shanghai Exchange’s STAR board, China’s equivalent to NASDAQ, and will go public when the conditions are ripe.

“It takes our peers 7-10 years to go public,” said Xue.

ThreatBook compares itself to CrowdStrike from Silicon Valley, which filed to go public in 2019 and detect threats by monitoring a company’s “endpoints”, which could be an employee’s laptops and mobile devices that connect to the internal network from outside the corporate firewall.

ThreatBook similarly has a suite of software that goes onto the devices of a company’s employees, automatically detects threats and comes up with a list of solutions.

“It’s like installing a lot of security cameras inside a company,” said Xue. “But the thing that matters is what we tell customers after we capture issues.”

SaaS providers in China are still in the phase of educating the market and lobbying enterprises to pay. Of the 3,000 companies that ThreatBook serves, only 300 are paying so there is plentiful room for monetization. Willingness to spend also differs across sectors, with financial institutions happy to shell out several million yuan ($1 = 6.54 yuan) a year while a tech startup may only want to pay a fraction of that.

Xue’s vision is to take ThreatBook global. The company had plans to expand overseas last year but was held back by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve had a handful of inquiries from companies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. There may even be room for us in markets with mature [cybersecurity companies] like Europe and North America,” said Xue. “As long as we are able to offer differentiation, a customer may still consider us even if it has an existing security solution.”

KKR closes $15 billion fund targeting consumption and urbanization in Asia

KKR has just closed $15 billion for its Asia-focused private equity fund, exceeding its original target size after receiving “strong support” from new and existing global investors, including those in the Asia Pacific region.

The new close came nearly four years after KKR raised its Asian Fund III of $9.3 billion and marks the New York-based alternative asset management titan’s ongoing interest in Asia. It also makes KKR Asian Fund IV one of the largest private equity funds dedicated to the Asia Pacific region.

KKR itself will inject about $1.3 billion into Fund IV alongside investors through the firm and its employees’ commitments. The new fund will be on the lookout for opportunities in consumption and urbanization trends, as well as corporate carve-outs, spin-offs, and consolidation.

KKR has been a prolific investor in Asia-Pacific since it entered the region 16 years ago with a multifaceted approach that spans private equity, infrastructure, real estate and credit. It currently has $30 billion in assets under management in the region.

The firm has been active during COVID-19 as well. On the one hand, the pandemic has accelerated the transition to online activities and singled out tech firms that proved resilient during the health crisis. Market disruption in the last year has also made valuations more attractive and pressured companies to seek new sources of capital. All in all, these forces provide “increasingly interesting opportunities for flexible capital providers like KKR,” the firm’s spokesperson Anita Davis told TechCrunch.

Since the pandemic, KKR has deployed about $7 billion across multiple strategies in Asia.

While KKR looks for deals across Asia, each market provides different opportunities pertaining to the state of its economy. For deals in consumption upgrades, KKR seeks out companies in emerging markets like China, Southeast Asia and India, said Davis. In developed countries like Japan, Korea and Australia, KKR observed that continued governance reform, along with a focus on return on equity (ROE), has driven carve-outs from conglomerates and spin-offs from multinational corporations, Davis added.

Specifically, KKR’s private equity portfolio in Asia consists of about 60 companies across 11 countries. Some of its more notable deals include co-leading ByteDance’s $3 billion raise in 2018 amid the TikTok parent’s rapid growth and bankrolling Reliance Jio with $1.5 billion in 2020.

“The opportunity for private equity investment across Asia-Pacific is phenomenal,” said Hiro Hirano, co-head of Asia Pacific Private Equity at KKR. “While each market is unique, the long-term fundamentals underpinning the region’s growth are consistent — the demand for consumption upgrades, a fast-growing middle class, rising urbanization, and technological disruption.”

The Asian Fund IV followed in the footsteps of KKR’s two other Asia-focused funds that closed in January, the $3.9 billion Asia Pacific Infrastructure Investors Fund and the $1.7 billion Asia Real Estate Partners Fund.

Chinese startups rush to bring alternative protein to people’s plates

On a recent morning in downtown Shenzhen, Lingyu queued up to order her go-to McMuffin. As she waited in line with other commuters, the 50-year-old accountant noticed the new vegetarian options on the menu and decided to try the imitation spam and scrambled egg burger.

“I’ve never had fake meat,” she said of the burger — one of five new breakfast items that McDonald’s introduced last week in three major Chinese cities featuring luncheon meat substitutes produced by Green Monday.

Lingyu, who works in her family business in Shenzhen, is exactly the type of Chinese customer that imitation meat companies want to attract beyond the young, trendy, eco-conscious urbanites. Her yuan means potentially more to meat replacement companies because it advances their business and climate agendas both. Eating less meat is one of the simplest ways to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint and help fight climate change.

McDonald’s hopes that its pea- and soy-based, zero-cholesterol, luncheon meat substitutes will carve out a piece of China’s massive dining market. Long-time rival KFC, and local competitor Dicos introduced their own plant-based products last year. Partnering with fast food chains is a smart move for companies that want to promote alternative protein to the masses, because these products are often pricey and are usually aimed at wealthy urbanites.

2020 could well have been the dawn of alternative protein in China. More than 10 startups raised capital to make plant-based protein for a country with increasing meat demand. Of these, Starfield, Hey Maet, Vesta and Haofood have been around for about a year; ZhenMeat was founded three years ago; and the aforementioned Green Monday is a nine-year-old Hong Kong firm pushing into mainland China. The competition intensified further last year when American incumbents Beyond Meat and Eat Just entered China.

Although some investors worry the sudden boom of meat substitute startups could turn into a bubble, others believe the market is far from saturated.

“Think about how much meat China consumes a year,” said an investor in a Chinese soy protein startup who requested anonymity. “Even if alternative protein replaces 0.01% of the consumption, it could be a market worth tens of billions of dollars.”

In many ways, China is the ideal testbed for alternative protein. The country has a long history of imitation meat rooted in Buddhist vegetarianism and an expanding middle class that is increasingly health-conscious and willing to experiment. The country also has a grip on the global supply chain for plant-based protein, which could give domestic startups an edge over foreign rivals.

“I believe, in five years, China will see a raft of domestic plant-based protein companies that could be on par with industry leaders from Europe and North America,” said Xie Zihan, who founded Vesta to develop soy-based meat suitable for Chinese cuisine.

Meat varieties

Hey Maet’s imitation meat dumplings / Photo: Hey Maet 

Lily Chen, a manager at the Chinese arm of alternative protein investor Lever VC, outlines three categories of meat analog companies in China: Western giants such as Beyond Meat and Eat Just; local players; and conglomerates such as Unilever and Nestlé that are developing vegan meat product lines as a defense strategy. Lever VC invested in Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats.

“They all have their product differentiation, but the industry is still very early stage,” said Chen.

Bilibili ups the ante in games with $123 million investment in TapTap

Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.

Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.

Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.

The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.

Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.

Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.

X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.

Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.

Huawei seeks growth in internet of things as phone business suffers

Huawei’s struggles amid U.S.-China trade tensions are driving it to seek opportunities in other smart devices, setting itself up against a raft of hardware makers at home and abroad.

The Chinese tech giant recorded sluggish revenue growth in 2020, climbing just 3.8% to 891.4 billion yuan ($136 billion), as its net profit grew 3.2% to 64.6 billion yuan. The results were in line with Huawei’s forecasts, the company said Wednesday at its annual report day in Shenzhen, a rare occasion to get a glimpse into the private entity’s financials.

To put the numbers in comparison, Huawei’s revenues were up 19% and 19.5% in 2019 and 2018, respectively.

The slowdown in 2020 was primarily due to a slump in Huawei’s overseas smartphone sales after U.S. export controls cut the firm off core chipsets and Google services critical to consumers. But the challenge has also sped up the firm’s pace to diversify and offset losses from its phone business.

For the past two years, Huawei’s has been ratcheting up efforts in a multitude of smart devices, including AR/VR headsets, tablets, laptops, TVs, smartwatches, speakers, headphones and in-car systems.

Huawei’s foray into the automotive industry has in particular attracted much limelight as the global smart vehicle industry booms. Reuters reported recently that Huawei would be producing its own branded cars, which the company denied. At today’s event, the firm’s rotating chairman Ken Hu reiterated that Huawei would play to its own strengths and only be supplying certain car components and services, such as the in-car operating system and smart cockpit. 

Huawei’s matrix of connected products is reminiscent of Xiaomi’s IoT strategy built around its smartphones and operating system, with the difference being that Huawei is also a telecom infrastructure supplier.

Despite moves by a few countries, such as the United Kingdom, to exclude Huawei from their 5G rollout plans, Huawei’s carrier segment in 2020 generated revenues on par with the year prior. The COVID-19 pandemic was a boon to the bsuiness, Hu said, which saw global demand in network solutions rise as people worked and learned from home.

Huawei’s IoT push has shown some early traction but competition is fierce. Smartwatches, it said, was one of its major revenue drivers from last year.

Globally, Apple held onto its leading position in wearables with 34.1% of the market in 2020, according to research firm IDC. Huawei ranked third at 9.8%, trailing its domestic rival Xiaomi which accounted for 11.4% of total shipments last year.

Overall, Huawei was leaning heavily on its home market to sustain growth in 2020. China accounted for 65.5% of its total revenues, growing by 15.4% year-over-year. Meanwhile, revenues fell 12.2% in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and was down 8.7% in the rest of Asia and down 24.5% in the Americas.