China’s EV darlings left stranded as VCs look elsewhere

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Rupert Mitchell, chief strategy officer of WM Motor, spoke at CNBC’s East Tech West conference in Guangzhou on Tuesday, November 19, 2019. (Image credit: CNBC International)
Rupert Mitchell, chief strategy officer at WM Motor, spoke at CNBC’s East Tech West conference in Guangzhou on Nov. 19, 2019. (Image credit: CNBC International)

Despite waning interest from venture capitalists in China’s electric vehicle industry, a leading figure from WM Motor expressed hope on Tuesday that the carmaker could secure funding of up to $1 billion within six months. Questions remain on whether WM Motor will actually get a deal over the line, and many players in the once-thriving EV battlefield face the same problem.

Chief Strategy Officer Rupert Mitchell said Series D financing could close “hopefully in the next six months,” at CNBC’s East Tech West conference in Guangzhou on Tuesday. The Shanghai-based new energy vehicle maker did not reveal what specific progress has been made since it set out to secure a deal in July. WM closed a RMB 3 billion ($450 million) Series C led by Baidu earlier this year, bringing its valuation to $5 billion.

The four-year-old EV maker is seeking more funds to fuel expansion in the challenging auto market. Mitchell noted that WM aims to roll out one new model annually over the next several years, adding its second manufacturing plant is almost complete. Located in the Huanggang city in central Hubei province, the RMB 255,000 facility will produce 50,000 cars annually, according to a government filing late last year.

Xpeng’s Xiaomi deal

Another of China’s NEV new breed Xpeng Motors was granted a temporary reprieve this month after completing a $400 million Series C from investors including handset maker Xiaomi. Xpeng President Brian Gu told TechNode at this year’s TechCrunch Shenzhen that the capital would be “instrumental” in achieving many of its goals, including expanding its sales network and completing a plant in the southern Zhaoqing city, slated for completion this year.

Gu added that the $400 million “war chest” is a powerful testament to its long-term growth prospects as investors felt reassured after the company hit business and financial targets despite economic headwinds, uncertainties in the global market, and government policy changes. Still, the company’s total amount raised to date sits at RMB 17 billion, far short of an ambitious year-end target of RMB 30 billion, first revealed to Chinese media in 2018.

The pair are among a handful of EV makers to have inked capital deals this year, with most other players still struggling to convince new investors. VC investment in China’s EV space has collapsed in 2019. Fundraising slid by almost 90% to a mere $783 million in the first half of the year, compared with $6 billion for the year-ago period, data from market research firm PitchBook shows. FAW-backed Byton has been searching for $500 million in Series C funding since October last year.

Nio’s plight

The situation is even worse at China’s largest Tesla rival, Nio, where a much-touted RMB 10 billion deal with government-backed capital fund Beijing E-town is yet to materialize. At the time of writing, Nio’s market capitalization has nosedived nearly 80% from last year’s post-listing valuation target of $8.5 billion to only $1.9 billion. The embattled EV maker’s losses widened in the second quarter this year, meaning Nio has leaked RMB 40 billion since 2016.

“There was actually … a sea change among the investor community that almost overnight they decided that they wanted to go from growth at any cost to profitability,” Robert H. McCooey, Jr, senior vice president at Nasdaq’s Listing Services unit said at East Tech West on Monday. Although he disagreed that the China-US trade tensions are holding Chinese companies back from listing in the US, capital market volatility has swelled with some firms such as Uber burning through money to go public.

Investors are waiting for more certainty in the market amid “worries over the ripple effects of the trade war,” McCooey said.