SenseTime’s IPO says HK universities make smart “sense”

Professor Rocky Tuan (second right) with Professor Xiaoou Tang (second left) in a group photo taken in 2018 when SenseTime opened its new office in Science Park and celebrated its 4th anniversary.

Talking to people about Hong Kong just about everywhere it seems the city is synonymous with finance – an international financial centre, the world’s gateway for Chinese capital, and the leading centre for initial public offerings. The list could go on. 

Sure, this week’s successful HK$5.55 billion listing of artificial intelligence leader SenseTime could just be racked up as another feather in the cap for the city’s bourse which despite recently ceding some ground to global competitors, has been the world’s largest IPO hub for seven of the past twelve years. 

But SenseTime’s story is more than just another chapter in Hong Kong’s financial services industry. It is a powerful tale about the city’s capacity to emerge as an innovation and technology superpower. It is a story woven in the fabric of Hong Kong’s world-class universities and our capacity for openness, and the value we place in intellectual capital. It says a lot about what this city can become. 

Twenty years ago, Professor Xiaoou Tang established the Multimedia Laboratory at The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) Faculty of Engineering which remains Asia’s pioneer on deep learning. After years of hard work, Professor Tang and his team have successfully commercialised their research and turned artificial intelligence from the stuff of science fiction into a field which has profound implications on just about every sector of the economy and with wide use across daily life. 

Some people say that entrepreneurs are dreamers, and the SenseTime team is no different. Their dream is for technology to lead to human progress. But I think their dream is one of trailblazing. Step-by-step, their team has overcome all manner of difficulties to set out a pathway for entrepreneurship motivated by their passion for innovation and their belief in humanity. This is precisely the same spirit that guides CUHK as we think about innovation and the power of ideas. 

SenseTime is a uniquely Hong Kong story and has the thread of our universities (and CUHK in particular) at its core. Professor Tang received his undergraduate education in the mainland before going to the United States for higher study and then establishing his research base at CUHK. The rest, as they say, is history. Founded by a team of CUHK professors, in less than a decade, SenseTime has become a global leader in artificial intelligence and the jewel in the crown of China’s burgeoning AI sector. SenseTime’s vision sensing technology is widely used across industry with applications solving problems in a range of areas spanning sectors such as lifestyle, smart cities and the automotive market. The connective tissue between CUHK and SenseTime was strengthened with their co-founding of the Global Artificial Intelligence Academic Alliance in Shanghai in 2018, together with 14 world leading artificial intelligence research institutions, which aspires to play an international leadership role in shaping the education and research agenda of this nascent field.    

But this doesn’t just happen by accident. 

It requires an ecosystem that thrives on excellent basic research, openness to global talent, and a healthy risk appetite. These are the ingredients which have spawned one of the world’s most successful university sectors with Hong Kong now home to five top 100 universities. 

From our very inception nearly six decades ago, CUHK has been committed to combining tradition with modernity, and bridging China and the west. Today more than 40 percent of our 8000 staff hold international qualifications, more than 30 percent hold non-Hong Kong SAR passports and close to 50% of our new hires hail from outside Hong Kong. This city is a magnet where the best minds from across the country collaborate with the world’s best and brightest to create something special. 

At CUHK, the ecosystem which started SenseTime was recently ranked tenth globally, ahead of Oxford in computer science, and our electronic design automation (critically important software for designing circuits) was ranked first globally based on the number of publications selected to appear in major international conferences. 

This is critical work for the future of just about all technology on the planet. 

So how do we make sure that SenseTime isn’t just a one-hit wonder and where is the next unicorn coming from? 
The short answer is that Hong Kong is doing everything within its power to ensure SenseTime will be a taste of what is yet to come. The Chief Executive’s recent Policy Address was largely focused on ensuring the city to become a globally leading innovation and technology hub, and this comes on the back of initiatives such as the Global STEM Professorship Scheme to attract top global talent, and the InnoHK programme to accelerate commercialisation pathways from research done at our universities, including in areas such as artificial intelligence and robotics. 

At CUHK we know that companies such as SenseTime are a key part of our DNA. Our new five-year strategic plan has highlighted information and automation technology as a research priority, as we envision CUHK serving as a superhighway that enables the translation of research into tangible benefits and the delivery of innovation to the world. 

The SenseTime story tells us there is so much more to Hong Kong than its historic status as a global financial hub – the research and innovation agenda tells us we have a lot to look forward to.