$820 million for maker of a Stormtrooper robot? Here's why it was a smart move

The Chinese robotics upstart is now valued at $5 billion and has no clear road to profitability... and that's just fine.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Chinese robotics company UBTech just landed $820 million in a Series C round led by Tencent.

Founded just five years ago, the company now has an eye-popping valuation of $5 billion.

That's a lofty assessment for what currently amounts to an unsuccessful toy company. But I have a hunch Tencent and other investors are on the ball as they look ahead to the next decade.

Read also: Robots with soft hands will transform the world. Here's why.

UBTech bills itself as a robotics company specializing in interactive humanoids for the family. If you've heard of it at all, it's probably for that diminutive Stormtrooper robot.

The robot features augmented reality (AR) capabilities via an accompanying app, voice command, facial recognition, a sentry patrolling capability, and a bunch of impressive AI under the hood.

It's a cool enough toy, I suppose. But it's also the kind of robotics application that's more useful as a demonstration of the state of the technology than as a market-viable product. The thing costs $300, and I'd be surprised if anyone reading this actually owns one. (Hit that comments section if you do.)

So, why the billion dollars in total funding and sky-high valuation?

It says a lot about the current state of the robotics industry. Analysts make their bread putting this into dense terminology, but here's the gist: No one has any idea when home robotics will be a viable sector outside robot vacuum cleaners, but everyone is certain it will be at some point.

That means if you're investing in a robotics company, current sales and market performance are the least of your concerns.

Instead, what you're after is a company that's investing heavily in R&D, is simultaneously committed to bringing its technology to market as quickly as possible in successive iterations, and is laying the brand recognition groundwork now with smart alliances and licensing deals.

If you need a cherry on top, make sure the company is based in what will soon be the biggest market for luxury goods and consumer products in the world, China.

In addition to the Stormtrooper bot, which has vastly aided UBTech's global brand recognition, the company has launched an education system called the Ebot, a service robot called Cruzr, and a range of general purpose Alpha humanoids.

Clearly, it's a firm committed to bringing technology to market.

UBTech is also investing heavily in its technology portfolio, which includes novel facial recognition and AI. It's lumped those technologies into some silly packages, but that functionality is destined to outgrow toys.

With all that in mind, the huge valuation and unicorn status makes quite a bit of sense. Tencent believes UBTech will be in pole position when consumer robotics eventually break out.

Until then, enjoy some impractically priced, technologically impressive toys.

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