Cao Xudong turned up on the side of the road in jeans and a black T-shirt printed with the word “Momenta,” the name of his startup.
Before founding the company — which last year topped $1 billion in valuation to become China’s first autonomous driving “unicorn” — he’d already led an enviable life, but he was convinced that autonomous driving would be the next real big thing.
Cao isn’t just going for the moonshot of fully autonomous vehicles, which he says could be 20 years away. Instead, he’s taking a two-legged approach of selling semi-automated software while investing in research for next-gen self-driving tech.
Cao, pronounced ‘tsao’, was pursuing his PhD in engineering mechanics when an opportunity came up to work at Microsoft’s fundamental research arm in Asia, putatively the “West Point” for China’s first generation of artificial intelligence experts. He held out there for more than four years before quitting to put his hands on something more practical: a startup.
“Academic research for AI was getting quite mature at the time,” said now 33-year-old Cao in an interview with TechCrunch, reflecting on his decision to quit Microsoft. “But the industry that puts AI into application had just begun. I believed the industrial wave would be even more extensive and intense than the academic wave that lasted from 2012 to 2015.”
In 2015, Cao joined SenseTime, now the world’s highest-valued AI startup, thanks in part to the lucrative face-recognition technology it sells to the government. During his 17-month stint, Cao built the company’s research division from zero staff into a 100-people strong team.
Before long, Cao found himself craving a new adventure again. The founder said he doesn’t care about the result as much as the chance to “do something.” That tendency was already evident during his time at the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he was a member of the outdoors club. He wasn’t particularly drawn to hiking, he said, but the opportunity to embrace challenges and be with similarly resilient, daring people was enticing enough.