Google has made its first direct investment in China since their 2010 exile, putting up an undisclosed amount into existing partner Mobvoi, an AI company building Chinese voice search functionality for Android devices on the mainland.
Google’s investment is in the tens of millions, and is a contribution to Mobvoi’s C series, bringing the company’s total investment to $75 million USD.
The Chinese company, which is founded by former Google employees, found a niche in its early days as a replacement for the banned Google services. The company is still relatively small, but is known for its voice search software as well as its own smartwatch OS and device called Ticwear.
Mobvoi was founded in 2012 by former Google research scientists, Li Zhifei, now CEO, and Mike Lei, who is the company’s CTO. They sealed a partnership with Google in March this year, also partnering with Lenovo’s Moto 360 to promote their voice search software this September. Their software is integrated with several of China’s most popular apps including WeChat, Dianping, Didi Chuxing and Weibo.
Currently Mobvoi’s voice search software, Chumenwenwen, has been integrated into the LG G Watch R along with the Moto 360. The company’s early investors include SIG, Sequoia Capital and Zhenfund.
For Google, the investment is the latest indication that they are serious about re-entering the market. Google services have been largely banned in China since 2010 due to a conflict with the Chinese government over several issues including censorship. The U.S. tech giant stepped up their efforts this year, with reports claiming that they are preparing a China-friendly version of the Play Store to be released on the mainland this year.