Top ECM banker quits for hot AI startup SenseTime

Bocom's Esther Wong tells FinanceAsia why she is leaving the banking industry for a new challenge: helping to develop next-generation artificial intelligence technologies.

Esther Wong, head of equity capital markets at Bocom International, is set to join Chinese artificial intelligence startup SenseTime as a managing director, marking the second high-profile departure from the investment banking community in less than a month.

Wong will start her new job next month with a focus on investment and M&A opportunities for the Beijing and Hong Kong-based startup. She will work out of Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In an interview with FinanceAsia, Wong said she was moving away from investment banking because the new role offered an opportunity for her to be involved in the development of next-generation technologies that could change the future of the world.

“I have been in the banking industry for over 20 years and it is not easy to step out the comfort zone,” Wong told FinanceAsia. “But this is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it is exciting to have the chance to play a part in shaping the future of the world.”

Wong, a veteran investment banker, started her banking career at ABN Amro in 1998 and has held senior equity capital market positions at CICC and Barclays. She joined Bocom International as head of ECM in 2015.

She is set to join SenseTime, a four-year-old Chinese startup that engages in research and development of artificial intelligence. The company is one of the country’s most valuable unicorns estimated to be worth over $2 billion as of the end of October last year.

Since its inception in 2014, SenseTime has raised over $1 billion of capital from Temasek, Qualcomm, IDG Captial and CDH Investments. The company counts China Mobile, Wanda, HNA Group and Huawei among its customers and partners.

SenseTime is competing head-to-head with the likes of Google and Facebook in deep learning technologies. The Chinese company, which is best-known for its facial recognition technologies, entered into partnership with Japanese automaker Honda earlier this year to develop self-driving cars.

“AI will disrupt the world just like internet did in the past decade. I believe SenseTime could exceed BAT in the future,” Wong said, referring to Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, the three tech giants that have led China’s digital push in recent years.

SenseTime was last year named as one of FinanceAsia’s  top 10 disruptive start-ups in the region. In November, co-founder Xu Bing told FinanceAsia of his vision of establishing SenseTime as the equivalent in artifical intelligence to the State Grid

Wong’s imminent departure marks the second exit of a senior investment banker this month. Brian Gu, JP Morgan’s chairman of Asia-Pacific investment banking, joined Chinese electric car startup Xpeng Motors earlier this month. The pair continue a trend in recent years of senior figures leaving the banking industry.

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