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China's robotaxi upstart WeRide confidentially files for IPO

WeRide.ai, one of the most funded Chinese robotaxi operators, has confidentially filed to go public in the U.S., Bloomberg reported on Monday. The company declined to comment when reached by TechCrunch.

China's autonomous driving startups have been racking up hefty investments in the past few years to fuel their technology development and fleet deployment, which can take up a big chunk of their costs. Their valuations have also skyrocketed as self-driving remains one of the few sectors that excites startup investors, even though the technology is far from mature and large-scale commercialization.

WeRide's valuation jumped to $3.3 billion when it raised its Series C round nearly two years ago. It reportedly pulled in a new round in March 2022, lifting its valuation to $4.4 billion. Its nemesis Pony.ai achieved an even loftier valuation -- $8.5 billion -- a year ago.

At some point, though, these capital-intensive robotaxi operators will need to access the public market for capital, as not many investors are able or willing to sign the large checks that support their late-stage expansion. WeRide is aiming to raise as much as $500 million, according to Bloomberg.

But during the past few years, the odds were against them and other Chinese tech firms seeking U.S. IPOs. As geopolitical tensions rose, U.S.-listed Chinese companies were increasingly placed under Washington's scrutiny, especially for their accounting practices. Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, was one of a handful of companies put on the U.S. government's delisting watchlist.

In the meantime, China was stepping up regulatory oversight on overseas-listed firms that could pose national security risks in their cross-border data transfers. Ride-hailing giant Didi, for example, delisted from New York amid pressure from Beijing.

WeRide saw how its rival Pony's IPO efforts fell apart. In 2021, Pony was eyeing to go public in the U.S. with a $12 billion valuation through a SPAC merger, but it later put the plan on hold as it struggled to gain assurances from Beijing that it wouldn’t become the next target of a crackdown against Chinese tech firms going public in the U.S. Lawrence Steyn, a former JPMorgan executive, joined Pony as its chief financial officer in 2021 but left this March, according to his LinkedIn page.

There are signs that the wave of U.S.-bound China IPOs is slowly resuming. February marked the listing of Chinese lidar maker Hesai on Nasdaq, which became the biggest Chinese IPO in the U.S. since Didi’s debut in 2021.

Sensing hardware is ostensibly not as sensitive as a ride-hailing or robotaxi service that owns seas of user mobility data. But WeRide appears to have resolved the data security problem. Bloomberg reported that the company "will outsource data collection to an entity that won’t be part of the planned U.S. listing."

WeRide has raised over $1.4 billion to date from investors, including Bosch and China's state-owned carmaker Guangzhou Automobile Group.