China’s top short video apps and e-commerce giants pally up

JD.com, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time nemesis, announced Wednesday a strategic partnership with Kuaishou, the main rival of TikTok’s sibling in China, Douyin.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet where short video apps and e-commerce platforms increasingly turn to each other for monetization synergies. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products ranging from cosmetics to electronics. Much of the transaction happens over live broadcasting — a bit misleading as these apps are billed as “short video” apps with live video features — which allows for real-time interaction between merchants and shoppers. COVID-19 has certainly advanced live-streamed shopping in a time when Chinese consumers were confined indoors.

The marriage of live broadcasting and e-commerce is reminiscent of what happened at the start of the social networking boom, which saw microblogging platform Weibo and Alibaba team up for similar motivation: expand content platforms’ revenue streams beyond advertising by turning content consumers into shoppers.

Retail requires such a different set of industry know-how that pure internet companies — social networks and video apps — are compelled to find allies in supply chains and logistics. Douyin has similarly tapped Alibaba for the latter’s retail resources and TikTok started testing social commerce recently.

This isn’t the first time that Kuaishou — which totals more than 300 million daily active users compared to Douyin’s 400 million — has sought out an e-commerce partner. It briefly worked with Alibaba’s Taobao and Pinduoduo, a rising challenger to Alibaba. What’s at stake is the fight for control over user data and traffic. After all, who’s entitled to all the data generated from these live-streamed transactions?

The JD-Kuaishou alliance seems to have settled on a friendly agreement. The online retailer will let Kuaishou users purchase JD products directly within the video app, a big leap from Kuaishou’s previous arrangement with other retail partners, which would redirect shoppers to buy on the e-commerce apps.

The collaboration appears to be a win-win. For Kuaishou, adding e-commerce capabilities will bring new revenues not only to itself but also to its influencers, strengthening their loyalty to the video platform. JD, on the other hand, can lean on Kuaishou’s popularity in small towns and rural villages to advance its goal to “further penetrate into lower-tier cities where hundreds of millions of consumers have a growing but underserved demand for quality products and upgraded services.”

YouTube says that an error caused comments critical of China’s government to auto-delete

YouTube responded to reports that it is automatically deleting comments criticizing the Chinese government on Tuesday, explaining that the seeming censorship is actually an error in its automated moderation systems.

As the Verge reported, comments on the platform using the Chinese phrases for “communist bandit” or “50-cent party“—two terms tied to criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party were taken down almost instantly, even if those comments were positive. The latter term (五毛 or “wumao dang) refers to China’s censorship efforts, particularly the idea that online commenters are paid to deflect criticism for the government.

Oculus and Anduril founder Palmer Luckey drew attention to the phenomenon on Monday.

In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson told TechCrunch that the auto-deletions were a result of “an error in our enforcement systems” that the company is looking into.

“Users can report suspected issues to troubleshoot errors and help us make product improvements,” the spokesperson said.

According to YouTube, the situation is an accidental side effect of the platform’s comment moderation system, which is designed to filter out hate speech, harassment and spam. The company didn’t offer further insight as to how the terms wound up flagged by its automated systems.

With the vast majority of their workforces out of the office, major tech platforms have leaned more heavily on AI moderation methods in recent months, even as they acknowledged that less human oversight would likely lead to more instances of content mistakenly being taken down.

China set to launch Mars probe and rover mission in July

China’s space program will launch a Mars mission in July, according to its current plans. This will include deploying an orbital probe to study the red planet, and a robotic, remotely-controlled rover for surface exploration. The U.S. has also been planning another robotic rover mission for Mars, and it’s set to take off this summer, too – peak time for an optimal transit from Earth to Mars thanks to their relative orbits around the Sun.

This will be the first rover mission to Mars for China’s space program, and is one of the many ways that it’s aiming to better compete with NASA’s space exploration efforts. NASA has flown four previous Mars rover missions, and its fifth, with an updated rover called ‘Perseverance,’ is set to take place this years with a goal of making a rendezvous with Mars sometime in February 2021.

NASA’s mission also includes an ambitious rock sample return plan, which will include the first powered spacecraft launch from the red planet to bring that back. The U.S. space agency is also sending the first atmospheric aerial vehicle to Mars on this mission, a helicopter drone that will be used for short flights to collect additional data from above the planet’s surface.

China has a number of plans to expand its space exploration efforts, including development and launch of an orbital research platform, its own space station above Earth, by 2022. The nation’s space program also recently test-launched a new crew spacecraft, which will eventually be used in its mission to land Chinese astronauts on the surface of the Moon.

Meanwhile, NASA has issued a new set of draft rules that it is proposing for continued international cooperation in space, particularly as they related to reaching the Moon and setting up a more permanent human presence on Earth’s natural satellite. The agency is also hoping to return human space launch capabilities to the U.S. this week with a first demonstration launch of astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft on Wednesday.

Work collaboration unicorn Notion is blocked in China

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation, said on Twitter Monday that its service is blocked in China.

The productivity app has attracted waves of startups and tech workers around the world — including those in China — to adopt its all-in-one platform that blends notes, wikis, to-dos, and team collaboration. The four-year-old San Francisco-based app is widely seen as a serious rival to Evernote, which started out in 2004.

Notion said it is “monitoring the situation and will continue to post updates,” but the timing of the ban noticeably coincides with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

Notion could not be immediately reached for comment.

For Notion and other apps that have entered the public eye in China but remained beyond the arm of local laws, a looming crackdown is almost certain. The country’s cybersecurity watchdog could find Notion’s free flow of note-sharing problematic. Some users have even conveniently turned the tool’s friendly desktop version into personal websites. If Notion were to keep its China presence, it would have to bow to the same set of regulations that rule all content creation platforms in China.

Its predecessor Evernote, for example, established a Chinese joint venture in 2018 and released a local edition under the brand Yinxiang Biji, which comes with compromised features and stores user data within China.

Rivalry in work collaboration

Just before its ban in China, Notion surged on May 21 to become the most-downloaded productivity app in the domestic Android stores, according to third-party data from App Annie. The sudden rise appears to be linked to its Chinese copycat Hanzhou (寒舟), which stirred up controversy within the developer community over its striking resemblance to Notion.

In an apologetic post published on May 22, Xu Haihao, the brain behind Hanzhou and a former employee of ByteDance-backed document collaboration app Shimo, admitted to “developing the project based on Notion.”

“We are wrong from the beginning,” wrote Xu. “But I intended to offend nobody. My intention was to learn from [Notion’s] technology.” As a resolution, the developer said he would suspend Hanzou’s development and user registration.

Some of the largest tech firms in China are gunning for the workplace productivity industry, which received a recent boost during the coronavirus crisis. Alibaba’s Dingtalk claimed last August that more than 10 million enterprises and over 200 million individual users had registered on its platform. By comparison, Tencent’s WeChat Work said it had logged more than 2.5 million enterprises and some 60 million active users by December.

China Roundup: A blow to US-listed Chinese firms and TikTok’s new global face

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. It’s been a tumultuous week for Chinese tech firms abroad: Huawei’s mounting pressure from the U.S., a big blow to U.S.-listed Chinese firms, and TikTok’s high-profile new boss.

China tech abroad

Further decoupling

Over the years, American investors have been pumping billions of dollars into Chinese firms listed in the U.S., from giants like Alibaba and Baidu to emerging players like Pinduoduo and Bilibili. That could change soon with the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, a new bill passed this week with bipartisan support to tighten accounting standards on foreign companies, with the obvious target being China.

“For too long, Chinese companies have disregarded U.S. reporting standards, misleading our investors. Publicly listed companies should all be held to the same standards, and this bill makes commonsense changes to level the playing field and give investors the transparency they need to make informed decisions,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen who introduced the legislation.

Here’s what the legislation is about:

1) Foreign companies that are out of compliance with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board for three years in a row will be delisted from U.S. stock exchanges.

PCAOB, which was set up in 2002 as a private-sector nonprofit corporation overseen by the SEC, is meant to inspect audits of foreign firms listed in the U.S. to prevent fraud and wrongdoing.

The rule has not sat well with foreign accounting firms and their local regulators, so over time PCAOB has negotiated multiple agreements with foreign counterparts that allowed it to perform audit inspections. China is one of the few countries that has not been cooperating with the PCAOB.

2) The bill will also require public companies in the U.S. to disclose whether they are owned or controlled by a foreign government, including China’s communist government.

The question now is whether we will see Chinese companies give in to the new rules or relocate to bourses outside the U.S.

The Chinese firms still have a three-year window to figure things out, but they are getting more scrutiny already. Most recently, Nasdaq announced to delist Luckin, the Chinese coffee challenger that admitted to fabricating $310 million in sales.

Those that do choose to leave the U.S. will probably find a warmer welcome in Hong Kong, attracting investors closer to home who are more acquainted with their businesses. Alibaba, for instance, already completed a secondary listing in Hong Kong last year as the city began letting investors buy dual-class shares, a condition that initially prompted many Chinese internet firms to go public in the U.S.

TikTok gets a talent boost 

The long-awaited announcement is here: TikTok has picked its new chief executive, and taking the helm is Disney’s former head of video streaming, Kevin Mayer.

It’s understandable that TikTok would want a global face for its fast-growing global app, which has come under scrutiny from foreign governments over concerns of its data practices and Beijing’s possible influence.

Curiously, Mayer will also take on the role of the chief operating officer of parent company ByteDance . A closer look at the company announcement reveals nuances in the appointment: Kelly Zhang and Lidong Zhang will continue to lead ByteDance China as its chief executive officer and chairman respectively, reporting directly to ByteDance’s founder and global CEO Yiming Zhang, as industry analyst Matthew Brennan acutely pointed out. That means ByteDance’s China businesses Douyin and Today’s Headlines, the cash cows of the firm, will remain within the purview of the two Chinese executives, not Mayer.

Huawei in limbo following more chip curbs

Huawei is in limbo after the U.S. slapped more curbs on the Chinese telecoms equipment giant, restricting its ability to procure chips from foreign foundries that use American technologies. The company called the rule “arbitrary and pernicious,” while it admitted that the attack would impact its business.

Vodafone to help Oppo expand in Europe 

As Huawei faces pressure abroad due to the Android ban, other Chinese phone makers have been steadily making headway across the world. One of them is Oppo, which just announced a partnership with Vodafone to bring its smartphones to the mobile carrier’s European markets.

All of China’s top AI firms now on U.S. entity list 

The U.S. has extended sanctions to more Chinese tech firms to include CloudWalk, which focuses on developing facial recognition technology. This means all of the “four dragons of computer vision” in China, as the local tech circle collectively calls CloudWalk, SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu, have landed on the U.S. entity list.

China tech back home

China’s new trillion-dollar plan to seize the tech crown (Bloomberg)

China has a new master plan to invest $1.4 trillion in everything from AI to 5G in what it dubs the “new infrastructure” initiative.

Fitbit rival Amazfit works on a reusable mask

The smartwatch maker is eyeing a transparent, self-disinfecting mask, becoming the latest Chinese tech firm to jump on the bandwagon to develop virus-fighting tech.

ByteDance moves into venture capital investment

The TikTok parent bankrolled financial AI startup Lingxi with $6.2 million, marking one of its first investments for purely monetary returns rather than for an immediate strategic purpose.

Bilibili is the new Youtube of China

The once-obscure video site for anime fans is now in the mainstream with a whopping 172 million monthly user base.

Xiaomi’s investment powerhouse reaches 300 companies 

It’s part of the smartphone giant’s plan to conquer the world of smart home devices and wearables.

Alibaba pumps $1.4 billion into content and services for IoT

Like Amazon, Alibaba has a big ambition in the internet of things.

UK government reverses course on Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks

Conservative members of the United Kingdom’s government have pushed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to draw up plans to remove telecom equipment made by the Chinese manufacturer Huawei from the nation’s 5G networks by 2023, according to multiple reports.

The decision by Johnson, who wanted Huawei’s market share in the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure capped at 35 percent, brings the UK back into alignment with the position Australia and the United States have taken on Huawei’s involvement in national communications networks, according to both The Guardian and The Telegraph.

The debate over Huawei’s role in international networking stems from the company’s close ties to the Chinese government and the attendant fears that relying on Huawei telecom equipment could expose the allied nations to potential cybersecurity threats and weaken national security.

Originally, the UK had intended to allow Huawei to maintain a foothold in the nation’s telecom infrastructure in a plan that had received the approval of Britain’s intelligence agencies in January.

“This is very good news and I hope and believe it will be the start of a complete and thorough review of our dangerous dependency on China,” conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told The Guardian when informed of the Prime Minister’s reversal.

As TechCrunch had previously reported, the Australian government and the U.S. both have significant concerns about Huawei’s ability to act independently of the interests of the Chinese national government.

“The fundamental issue is one of trust between nations in cyberspace,” wrote Simeon Gilding, until recently the head of the Australian Signals Directorate’s signals intelligence and offensive cyber missions. “It’s simply not reasonable to expect that Huawei would refuse a direction from the Chinese Communist Party.”

Given the current tensions between the U.S. and China, allies like the UK and Australia would be better served not exposing themselves to any risks from having the foreign telecommunications company’s technology in their networks, some security policy analysts have warned.

“It’s not hard to imagine a time when the U.S. and China end up in some sort of conflict,” Tom Uren of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told TechCrunch. “If there was a shooting war, it is almost inevitable that the U.S. would ask Australia for assistance and then we’d be in this uncomfortable situation if we had Huawei in our networks that our critical telecommunications networks would literally be run by an adversary we were at war with.”

U.S. officials are bound to be delighted with the decision. They’ve been putting pressure on European countries for months to limit Huawei’s presence in their telecom networks.

“If countries choose to go the Huawei route it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, according to a report in The New York Times.

In recent months the U.S. government has stepped up its assault against the technology giant on multiple fronts. Earlier in May, the U.S. issued new restrictions on the use of American software and hardware in certain strategic semiconductor processes. The rules would affect all foundries using U.S. technologies, including those located abroad, some of which are Huawei’s key suppliers.

At a conference earlier this week, Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping admitted that while the firm is able to design some semiconductor parts such as integrated circuits (IC), it remains “incapable of doing a lot of other things.”

“Survival is the keyword for us at present,” he said.

Huawei has challenged the ban, saying that it would damage the international technology ecosystem that has developed to manufacture the hardware that powers the entire industry.

“In the long run, [the U.S. ban] will damage the trust and collaboration within the global semiconductor industry which many industries depend on, increasing conflict and loss within these industries.”

Xiaomi’s investment house of IoT surpasses 300 companies

Xiaomi, the Chinese comapny famous for its budget smartphones and a bevy of value-for-money gadgets, said in a filing on Thursday that it has backed more than 300 companies as of March, totaling 32.3 billion yuan ($4.54 billion) in book value and 225.9 million yuan ($32 million million) in net gains on disposal of investments in just the first quarter.

The electronics giant has surely lived up to its ambition to construct an ecosystem of the internet of things, or IoT. Most of its investments aim to generate strategic synergies, whether it is to diversify its product offerings or build up a library of content and services to supplement the devices. The question is whether Xiaomi’s hardware universe is generating the type of services income it covets.

Monetize from services

Back in 2013, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun vowed to invest in 100 hardware companies over a five-year period. The idea was to acquire scores of users through this vast network of competitively-priced devices, through which it could tout internet services like fintech products and video games.

That’s why Xiaomi has kept margins of its products razor-thin, sometimes to the dismay of its investees and suppliers. Its vision hasn’t quite materialized, as it continued to drive most of its income from smartphones and other hardware devices. Services comprised 12% of total revenue in the first quarter, although the segment did record a 38.6% increase from the year before.

Over time, the smartphone maker has evolved into a department store selling all sorts of everyday products, expanding beyond electronics to cover categories like stationaries, kitchenware, clothing and food — things one would find at Muji. It makes certain products in-house — like smartphones — and sources the others through a profit-sharing model with third parties, which it has financed or simply partners with under distribution agreements.

Xiaomi’s capital game

Many consumer product makers are on the fence about joining Xiaomi’s distribution universe. On the one hand, they can reach millions of consumers around the world through the giant’s vast network of e-commerce channels and physical stores. On the other, they worry about margin squeeze and overdependence on the Xiaomi brand.

As such, many companies that sell through Xiaomi have also carved out their own product lines. Nasdaq-listed Huami, which supplies Xiaomi’s Mi Band smartwatches, has its own Amazfit wearables that rival Fitbit. Roborock, an automatic vacuum maker trading on China’s Nasdaq equivalent, STAR Market, had been making Xiaomi’s Mi Home vacuums for a year before rolling out its own household brand.

With the looming economic downturn triggered by COVID-19, manufacturers might be increasingly turning to Xiaomi and other investors to cope with cash-flow liquidity challenges.

Along with its earnings, Xiaomi announced that it had bought an additional 27.44% stake in Zimi, the main supplier of its power banks, bringing its total stakes in the company to 49.91%. Xiaomi said the acquisition would boost Xiaomi’s competitiveness in “5G + AIoT,” a buzzword short for the next-gen mobile broadband technology and AI-powered IoT. For Zimi, the investment will likely alleviate some of the financial pressure it’s feeling under these difficult times.

Competition in the Chinese IoT industry is heating up as the country races to roll out 5G networks, which will enable wider adoption of connected devices. Just this week, Alibaba, which has its finger in many pies, announced pumping 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) into ramping up its Alexa-like smart voice assistant Genie, which will be further integrated into Alibaba’s e-commerce experience, online entertainment services and consumer hardware partners.

China’s Geek+ brings warehouse robots to US via Conveyco partnership

Chinese robots will soon be seen roaming a number of warehouse floors across North America. Geek+, a well-funded Chinese robotics company that specializes in logistics automation for factories, warehouses and supply chains, furthers its expansion in North America after striking a strategic partnership with Conveyco, an order fulfillment and distribution center system integrator with operations across the continent.

Geek+ is seizing a massive opportunity in replacing repetitive warehouse work with unmanned robots, a demand that has surged during the coronavirus outbreak as logistics services around the world face labor shortage, respond to an uptick in e-commerce sales, and undertake disease prevention methods.

The partnership will bring Geek+’s autonomous mobile robots, or ARMs, to Conveyco’s clients in retail, ecommerce, omnichannel and logistics across North America. The deal will give a substantial boost to Geek’s overseas distribution while helping Conveyco to “improve efficiency, provide flexibility, and reduce costs associated with warehouse and logistics operations in various industries,” the partners said in a statement.

Beijing-based Geek+ so far operates 10,000 robots worldwide and employs some 800 employees, with offices in China, Germany, the U.K, the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Some of its clients include Nike, Decathlon, Walmart and Dell.

Since founding in 2015, the company has raised about $390 million through five funding rounds, according to public data collected by Crunchbase, including a colossal $150 million round back in 2018 which it claimed was the largest-ever funding round for a logistics robotics startup. It counts Warburg Pincus, Vertex Ventures and GGV Capital among its list of investors.

Polestar to open first U.S. stores in the second half of 2020

Polestar’s first U.S. retail stores will open in Los Angeles, New York City and two locations in San Francisco later this year — the latest milestone for the automaker as it gets closer to bringing its all-electric vehicle to market.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. The 2021 Polestar 2 is the first EV to come out of Polestar since it was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017.

The company has had plans to open physical retail showrooms called “Polestar Spaces.” Those plans have been delayed by stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stores are expected to open the second half of 2020.

Polestars plans to expand its retail footprint in the first half of 2021 with locations in Boston, Denver, Texas, Washington D.C. and Florida regions. More than 80% of Polestar 2 reservation holders reside within a 150-mile range of the stores scheduled to open by mid 2021, according to Gregor Hembrough, head of Polestar USA.

Unlike the traditional dealership model, Polestar will sell or lease its cars online to customers in all 50 states. The physical stores, which will be in partnership with retailers such as Manhattan Motorcars, Galpin Motors and Price-Simms Automotive Group, are meant to supplement its digital strategy.

TikTok parent ByteDance leads $6M round in financial AI startup Lingxi

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has added Lingxi, a Beijing-based startup that applies machine intelligence to financial services such as debt collection and insurance sales, to its ever-expanding portfolio of investments.

The AI startup has raised a $6.2 million Series A round co-led by ByteDance and Rocket Internet, the German accelerator that has incubated e-commerce giants Lazada and Jumia. Junsan Capital and GSR Ventures also participated in the round, which officially closed in April.

This marks one of ByteDance’s first investment deals for purely monetary returns, rather than for an immediate strategic purpose. However, with ByteDance’s recent foray into the financial services domain, that relationship could shift over time.

ByteDance as an investor

TikTok’s parent company previously focused narrowly on strategic deals, with the aim of leveraging these smaller startups’ technology, industry know-how, talents and other resources for its own business objectives. The most prominent example is perhaps its acquisition of Musical.ly, through which TikTok gained access to tens of millions of American users and a reputed product team led by founder Alex Zhu.

In 2019, ByteDance’s strategic investment team began its search for venture capital-style funding opportunities. Spearheading the effort is former Sequoia China investor Yang Jie.

There are, however, clear strategic synergies in ByteDance’s first financial investment. The online entertainment giant has already received an insurance broker license and is in the process of obtaining one for consumer finance, according to Lingxi founder and chief executive Zhongpu “Vincent” Xia. When asked if he sees ByteDance eventually deploying Lingxi’s machine intelligence in its future financial services, Xia responded, “Why not?”

ByteDance declined to comment on its entry into the financial sector.

Despite billing themselves as AI-first companies, both ByteDance and Lingxi recognize the essential role of humans before AI reaches the desired level of sophistication. ByteDance today relies on thousands of human auditors to screen content published across its TikTok, Douyin, Today’s Headlines and other apps. Likewise, Lingxi is labor-intensive and manages 200 customer representatives aided by a team of 30 AI experts.

The core of Lingxi is to “augment humans, not to replace them,” said Xia in a phone interview with TechCrunch .

Too big to change

Xia was leading a team of 90 people to work on Baidu’s commercialization of AI when he had an epiphany to do something of his own. He was convinced that AI would enhance humans’ cognitive capability, he said, the same way the steam engine had boosted humans’ physical production a century ago. The Chinese search pioneer has widely been perceived as the poster child of the nation’s booming AI industry because of its early and outsized investment in the technology, but by the end of 2017, Xia felt Baidu’s model of touting AI as a tool wasn’t working.

“We hit a bottleneck. The technology [AI] wasn’t mature enough yet, which means you have to combine it with a big team of people to perform manual tasks like data labeling, so you not only need to hire AI experts, professionals in the business you serve, but also a large number of workers to label data and train the machines,” he said.

Xia is among the industry practitioners who recognize the limitation of machines. While computers can outperform humans in completing repetitive, menial tasks, they remain unreliable in handling complex human emotions and can lead to counterproductive and even detrimental repercussions were they left with full autonomy.

The result of relying completely on machines is “client dissatisfaction,” said Xia. “The client might be very happy for the first few months, but as its business evolves and new needs arise, it will start to realize that the so-called machines are getting dumber and dumber. Artificial intelligence becomes artificial retardedness.”

Lingxi staff at work during the COVID-19 pandemic

Most self-proclaimed AI startups in China make money by selling bots akin to how old-fashioned software was sold with pre-programmed objectives, allowing little room for iteration or upgrade later on. Lingxi, in contrast, is service-based and takes a commission from client revenues.

Take debt collection — Lingxi’s primary focus at this stage — for example. When a client, a financial affiliate of one of China’s biggest internet firms, assigned Lingxi with 1.9 million yuan (about $270,000) worth of debt, the startup’s algorithms first determined how much the machines could handle. It turned out that the robots recovered 1.7 million yuan and left the rest of the cases, which Xia categorized as “irrational and complicated,” to human staff. By Q1 2020, Lingxi was able to achieve 2.5 times the average output of debt collection agencies, and it aims to ramp up the ratio to 4 times by the end of the year.

Human control

Conventionally, a company selling AI tools deals only with the IT department from its clients. Lingxi works with the business department instead. In the client’s eye, the AI startup is no different from a traditional debt collector. In practice, Lingxi is a debt collector with souped-up productivity enabled by computing power.

“The client doesn’t care what tools we use. They care only about the result,” said Xia. “The difference in working with these two departments is that the one in charge of the actual business is result-driven and will give us much stricter KPIs.”

The immediate impact of this model is that the AI-driven vendor must keep improving its algorithms, manually sampling and correcting machine decisions to improve their accuracy. “We might not be making money in the beginning, but over time, our output will certainly surpass those of our competitors.”

The service-oriented approach pushes Lingxi to get its hands dirty, upending the image of tech startups coding away in their sleek and comfortable offices. Its engineers are asked to regularly talk to clients about their real-life business challenges, whereas its customer representatives are required to attend training in how AI works.

“Fusion is what defines our company culture,” said Xia introspectively. “The technical team needs to understand business practices. Vice versa, our business people need to understand technology.”

Coveted sector

It’s not hard to see why Xia chose to target China’s financial services industry. The booming sector is lucrative and tends to be more progressive in embracing technological innovations. Competition in fintech runs high, leveling the playing field for newer entrants against those that are more established.

“There’s a saying in the Chinese tech world that goes: If you can conquer the financial industry, you have conquered the business-to-business world,” said the founder.

The three-year-old startup is targeting 40-80 million yuan ($5.6 million to $11.3 million) in revenue in 2020. It’s one of the few businesses that have, against the odds, thrived under the COVID-19 pandemic because more people are taking out loans to tide the looming economic downturn.

Meanwhile, traditional debt collectors are struggling to hire during city lockdowns due to travel bans across the country, which started to ease in March, while machine-only vendors still fail to satisfy the whole range of client demands. That gave Lingxi a big window to onboard a significant number of new clients, prompting it to hire new staff.