China's GoPro rival plans IPO in 2020 after raising fresh round of funding

Key Points
  • Insta360, a Chinese company that sells cameras able to film 360-degree video, said on Wednesday it had raised $30 million in funding.
  • Chief Executive JK Liu told CNBC the company would go public in 2020 in China.
  • The funds will be used, according to Liu, for research and development into artificial intelligence products and will go toward opening branded physical stores in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Japan and across major cities in China.
An Insta360 ONE X camera on display in the mountains.

Insta360, a Chinese firm that sells cameras able to film 360-degree video, said on Wednesday it had raised $30 million in funding and its CEO told CNBC the company is planning to go public in 2020.

"We plan on an IPO in 2020 and take on new investments from the public market so we can more aggressively innovate and change the camera industry," JK Liu, CEO of Insta360 told CNBC in an interview through a translator.

He added that the company plans to list in mainland China but has not yet decided on a specific location.

Insta360 sells cameras that can plug into smartphones and record 360-degree video. Users can edit videos on their smartphones. Beyond that, the company has also recently expanded its products into so-called action cameras — standalone hardware designed to capture fast-moving sports or activities.

That has thrust it into deeper competition with U.S. firm GoPro.

But Liu said his company has enough to stand apart from GoPro. He told CNBC that technology such as the company's proprietary image stabilization software helps Insta360 differentiate. A firm pace of product development and "willingness to innovate" sets it apart, he claimed.

"Broadly, some of our competitors it seems like their main goal is to expand their audience as much as possible with marketing. What our core goal is is to bring down the threshold for anybody to make really amazing content. That's how we think we will grow our market," Liu said.

GoPro v Insta360

GoPro has had a rough time in the public market. The camera maker listed in the U.S. on the Nasdaq in 2014 at $24 per share. It has dropped well below that, however, and is around $6 as of this week.

When asked whether he thought investors might draw negative comparisons between GoPro and Insta360, Liu said there were a number of reasons he thought the market would see the two companies differently. Liu described the push into action cameras as a mid-term strategy and said there is "huge potential" because the industry is "where mobile phones were in 2008" when those products were shifting from feature handsets to smartphones.

He also said Insta360's cameras that plug into smartphones is an "enormous market."

Cameras that can record 360-degree video are important to create virtual reality (VR) content. Nowadays, this can be quite difficult and expensive to make. Liu acknowledge that VR went through "a couple years of hype," but projected it will ultimately become "a ubiquitous and widespread content platform that every family will have." He said the growth of VR will support Insta360's business.

We spent a day skiing with Nick Woodman to hear about GoPro's struggles

$30 million funding

The $30 million funding round came from Chinese investors Everest Venture Capital, MG Holdings and Huajin Capital. They join IDG Capital, Suning Holdings Group, Xunlei, and Qiming Venture Partners.

Insta360 declined to disclose its valuation.

Liu said part of the funding would be used for research and development with a particular focus on bringing more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to its software and hardware.

"We do have some big plans with software upgrades this year and some will involve those new research directions looking at the latest in AI to help automate a lot of editing," Liu told CNBC.

"Having said that, it is not something that we plan to make into a paid product or core part of our business, we are not looking to convert it into a money maker," he added, addressing a question about whether the company would begin to charge for editing software.

Liu said the company would launch a new hardware and software product this year but declined to reveal further details.

Currently, Insta360 sells its products in various retail stores — including Apple's — and online. Part of the funding, Liu said, will be used to build branded stores for the company in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Japan and across major cities in China. Those will begin opening this year, he said.

Liu claimed Insta360 has been profitable since 2017 and has had a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in terms of revenue of 130 percent between 2016 and 2018. CAGR is essentially an average growth rate over those years. Heavy investment can often dent profitability, but Liu said the company would remain in the black even if some of its bets were to sour.

"Although some of the investments we will be making including offline stores and some of our (research and development) focuses carry risks ... if those investments are successful, they will bring back a huge return. Even if they carry some losses, our revenue is able to account for that, so we don't see it affecting profitability," Liu said.

Trade war impact?

Insta360 is headquartered in Shenzhen, one of China's largest cities, which is often dubbed the country's answer to Silicon Valley. The company's manufacturing takes place in China and the U.S. is its biggest market.

The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China hasn't had an impact on Insta360's business, according to Liu. Still, he added, a continuation of economic hostilities could cause a price rise — one that he said the company could weather.

"Looking forward, if there is a worsening trade war between the U.S. and China, it is possible it will affect the price of our products," Liu told CNBC.

"There are two points. One is that those conditions will apply to the market as a whole, so it's not a particular threat to us. And the other thing is we see ourselves as well defended against that. Even if there are price rises, we don't see it as a significant threat to our business. We have never differentiated on price. Our flagship camera … is already on the upper end of the action camera market," he added, referring to the model known as the Insta360 One X.