2017 was an auspicious year for Chinese AI firm iFlytek. In June, MIT Technology Review ranked the Chinese AI company as the 6th smartest company in the world, just behind Google’s parent company Alphabet and also the highest ranked Chinese company on the list. In November, the Chinese government announced plans (in Chinese) to build national AI platforms in partnership with four companies. iFlytek was tasked with the national voice AI platform. The three other companies chosen were Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for iFlytek. Founded in 1999, the company almost changed tracks to go into real estate after experiencing failed products, low revenues and difficulties in securing funding early on.

“In 2000, we had a meeting that is now famous in our company. At the meeting, someone suggested we go into real estate,” iFlytek co-founder Liu Qingfeng said during a segment of WeTalkTV (in Chinese). “But we made a choice that we would still make today. We said: ‘If you’re not behind voice recognition and speech synthesis technology, please leave’.”

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Linda Lew

Linda Lew is a Beijing-based journalist who covers technology, start-ups and business in China. You can reach her at lindalew at aliyun dot com.