From classmates to co-founders, Chinese AI champion Megvii started on campus

Three of China’s top computer science students always believed that robots would need a pair of eyes.

Megvii AI unicorn Megvii is valued at USD 4 billion Source: Megvii

In 2017, at the annual COCO image-recognition competition, a team from Beijing-based computer vision pioneer Megvii won first place in three of the four key categories, outperforming the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. It was a resounding statement of intent from one of China’s top artificial intelligence startups, which has experienced a meteoric rise since it was founded by a group of Tsinghua University computer science graduates in late 2011.

Founders Yin Qi, Tang Wenbin, and Yang Mu have grown Megvii from its humble beginnings on campus into a unicorn, boasting a current valuation of over USD 4 billion. Along the way, the company has steadily evolved from its core competency in facial recognition, renowned by its Face++ solutions, into a creator of intelligent ecosystems, optimizing the effectiveness of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in manufacturing, logistics, and urban management.

Megvii’s computer vision technology holds its own on a global stage. Source: COCO 2017 website

Megvii’s customers include some of the most notable names in Chinese tech like Ant Financial, Didi Chuxing, and Xiaomi to name a few. With a solid base in China, Megvii will look overseas for more opportunities.

However, amid its rising star, the company was placed on a blacklist by the US government in October of 2019 citing national security concerns reminiscent of its feud with Huawei, as Megvii also supplies its technology to the Chinese government to bolster security and law enforcement in the country.

Megvii’s founders have managed to retain control of the company despite securing total fundraising of USD 1.4 billion over seven financing rounds, as they control almost 17% of total shares along with the majority of voting rights. Many successful startups founded on campus often transition to more experienced management as they grow, but not Megvii. Even as the firm eyes an imminent public offering, it still remains under the stewardship of its original CEO.

So, who are the three masterminds behind creating a global titan in artificial intelligence, and how did they develop Megvii from an idea on Tsinghua’s campus into an industry leader, all before even turning 30?

Developing talents

While the Chinese education system has often been derided for stifling creativity and prioritizing accomplishment, Megvii’s creation owes credit to a unique educational initiative. In 2004, famed Chinese computer scientist and Turing Award winner Andrew Yao returned from a decorated career in American academia to become dean at Tsinghua University, China’s top university for math and science students.

Yao founded the “Yao Class” at Tsinghua in 2005, a specialized computer science program taught by Yao himself, representing the pinnacle of computer science study at the undergraduate level in China.

Naturally, admission is hyper-selective, as only the top three engineering students from each province are selected for the class. Graduates from Yao’s class are among the elite in computer science and usually either pursue further degrees or join one of the top global tech firms, with few choosing the uncertain route of entrepreneurship.

Yin Qi, a 16-year-old boy from Anhui province, who had been making waves as a mathematical genius since a young age, was recruited to join Yao’s class where he met fellow gifted students Tang Wenbin and Yang Mu. Under Yao’s tutelage, these three excellent pupils would go on to found Megvii just mere months after graduation.

Yin Qi – CEO

Yin Qi has served as CEO of Megvii since the company’s inception. The son of a teacher and a civil servant, academic excellence was paramount, and on this front young Yin never disappointed, consistently ranking at the top of his class in Wuhu, Anhui province.

Starting in Yin’s sophomore year at Tsinghua University, he worked as an intern at Microsoft Asia Research Institute to contribute to projects involving facial recognition technology. Inspired and emboldened by the seemingly innumerable use cases for facial recognition in an advanced technological economy, Yin decided to reach out to his college classmates to talk about starting their own business.

yin-qi Megvii
Yin Qi has been named in 2018 to MIT Technology Review’s annual list of Innovators Under 35. Photo by Megvii

Following graduation from Tsinghua in the summer of 2011, Yin approached his classmates Tang Wenbin and Yang Mu about starting their own venture.

In October of 2011, Megvii was founded in Beijing’s Zhongguancun startup district, where just months later fellow AI-powered Chinese tech giant ByteDance would be born.

Soon after the company began, Yin decided to go to Columbia University in New York to pursue his Ph.D. in computer science, with the goal of augmenting his understanding of hardware given his background in software. However, after little more than a year, having completed a Master’s in computer science, he decided to halt his Ph.D. studies and return to work in China full time.

He recalled that his purpose for going to the US was to acquire the knowledge to build a better business, which he considered completed, while he longed for the breakneck pace of China’s tech scene in Beijing.

In July 2017, at an economic situation symposium hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Yin was invited to speak, representing his firm, to showcase the country’s ability to produce homegrown advanced tech companies.

Emboldened by the Megvii’s growth, in November of 2017, at the Essential Innovation of Artificial Intelligence conference organized by Tsinghua University, Yin remarked, “I think China’s artificial intelligence industry has the opportunity to surpass that of the United States, but we must not squander this opportunity, we need to seize the chance to expand.”

Tang Wenbin – CTO

Tang Wenbin, Megvii’s CTO, is the technical genius of the talented group. Born in southeastern China’s Zhejiang province, Tang was quickly identified to be included in Yao’s Class, where he would meet Yin Qi and Yang Mu. Tang is known for his prowess in computer science competitions, leading Megvii to collect 22 titles in international artificial intelligence.

While at Tsinghua in 2009, Tang was awarded the “Yao Award”, given to one student each year for outstanding accomplishment. Tang also served as chairman of the Science and Technology Association of the computer science department at Tsinghua University and has spent seven years as the coach of the China Informatics Olympiads Training Team.

Tang Wenbin, Co-Founder and CTO of Megvii, introducing Brain++
Tang Wenbin, Co-Founder and CTO of Megvii, introducing Brain++. Photo by Megvii

Tang has focused on deep learning since 2011, explaining that his introduction to machine learning, a term he prefers to artificial intelligence, was social network data mining. By collecting and analyzing data from public social networks, Tang devised programs that could accurately predict the relationship between two users.

He describes Megvii’s technology as the means to create products, but that the actual value stems from how this tech can be applied in reality to improve efficiency, however minor they may be. For example, using your face to conduct transactions at the bank instead of requiring an ID card.

Tang explained how he always believed that robots would need a pair of eyes, and now with application scenarios ranging from autonomous mobility to medical diagnostics, computer vision combined with deep learning has enormous potential.

Since honing the company’s facial recognition technology, Tang’s next project was to develop Brain++, a deep learning engine that trains algorithms by independently testing, iterating, and optimizing.

In a 2018 interview, Tang explained that he wishes the artificial intelligence sector could escape the spotlight of the media and investors. He lamented how every company using machine learning to optimize any part of their business is eager to disingenuously brand themselves as an AI company.

Tang, undoubtedly a pioneer in cutting edge artificial intelligence research, was duly honored with the 2019 Chinese Science Person of the Year award.

Yang Mu – Co-founder

Yang, Megvii’s third co-founder originally from Fuzhou, Zhejiang province, was a promising computer science student at Tsinghua who won a gold medal in the 2010 International Olympiad in Informatics.

Yang has led Megvii’s cloud computing efforts for Face++, while also heading the company’s business concerning personal mobile devices.

In 2018, Yang was named in Forbes 30 Under 30 China list, however, he is much less active in the media and keeps a lower profile than Megvii’s two other cofounders.

What’s next for Megvii?

The next step in the company’s evolution, is an intelligent connected ecosystem of devices, something the company calls “Hetu,” to act as the brain for a network of robots to boost efficiency. The system aims to capitalize on Megvii’s dominant position in computer vision-enabled IoT products, providing solutions for smart supply chains, intelligent manufacturing, and smart urban management technology.

Megvii has already partnered with established warehouse management system companies including Weizhi Information, Juwo Technology, Xinyi Technology, Kejie Technology, and Wharf Technology to test and refine the Hetu system.

China’s national directive to enhance the technological sophistication of its economy, specifically its manufacturing and logistics sectors, falls perfectly in line with Megvii’s future ambition to use AI-powered systems and robotics to fully optimize China’s massive delivery ecosystem.

Megvii wants to automate China’s massive manufacturing and logistics sectors

Recently, the company decided to open-source its deep learning software MegEngine, part of its proprietary AI platform Brain++, to promote broader AI research and development.

In 2019, Megvii was honored with an award for World’s Leading Scientific and Technological Achievements at the sixth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China on October 20, 2019. At the event, Tang Wenbin would outline his vision for Brain++ going forward.

For all of its technical proficiency, Megvii’s presence on the US trade blacklist could pose challenges to international expansion. Despite refuting the decision, the firm is not alone in drawing the ire of US regulators, as Chinese artificial intelligence peers SenseTime, iFlyTek, and Yitu Technology are also included on the blacklist. The blacklisting could also cool investor confidence in US capital markets.

As one of China’s hottest tech startups yet to go public, Megvii is rumored to be plotting an IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange since the summer of 2019, which has long been delayed.

Given the uncertainties in capital markets caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the highly-anticipated wait for China’s first public AI company continues for now. Until then Megvii continues its development, applying computer vision in various use cases to offer more complete solutions and systems.

Correction: Alipay’s facial recognition feature is not powered by Megvii’s technology as the article earlier stated.