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PRD pioneers: DJI

Shenzhen-based DJI is reaching places that it could hardly have envisaged just a year or two ago. Last January one of its drones plunged into the White House lawn, prompting a security panic. And a few weeks later another of its drones was crash-landed onto the Tokyo office roof of Abe Shinzo, Japan’s prime minister.

A flight of fancy while studying in Hong Kong led Wang Tao to found drone firm DJI in Shenzhen

A flight of fancy while studying in Hong Kong led Wang Tao to found drone firm DJI in Shenzhen

The company has responded by tweaking software that prevents its customers from guiding their machines into no-fly zones like airports (and now the White House, it seems), forcing them from the air if they cross certain GPS coordinates. But DJI continues to fly high itself, however, as the leading manufacturer of commercial and recreational unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for photography and video. For the champions of a more integrated Pearl River Delta, the company is a vision of the region’s future: its commercial success has been forged in the ‘maker culture’ of Shenzhen, but its origins were inspired across the border in Hong Kong.

$8 billion

Latest valuation of unlisted DJI, placing it in the ‘unicorn’ category

Wang Tao founded the firm in 2006 while doing an electronic engineering degree at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A class project in remote-control helicopters morphed into a small business after graduation, with Wang selling flight control systems to hobbyists. But the real breakthrough came three years ago with the release of the first of the Phantom series of drones. The easy-to-assemble quadcopters costing less than $700 were so straightforward to fly that the market exploded beyond geeks and amateur enthusiasts. DJI drones are now flown by photographers and filmmakers, and have built up a following in industries like agriculture, energy and security.

DJI’s drones are something of an industrial landmark: the first category in consumer electronics to be invented and dominated by a Chinese brand.

“Chinese people think imported products are good and made-in-China products are inferior. We’re always second class,” Wang complained to Fortune magazine last year. “I’m unsatisfied with this overall environment, and I want to do something to change it”.

DJI’s revenues have surged since the Phantom range was first introduced, rising from $4.2 million in 2011 to sales estimated at about $1 billion last year. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Accel Partners invested $75 million in DJI last May, valuing Wang’s business at about $8 billion, according to press reports.

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