The Apple of the Pearl River Delta? DJI Innovations is taking flight

DJI Innovations has 900 employees and is set to generate revenue of US$131m this year

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 5:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 12:00pm

When Frank Wang Tao sneaked away from classes at the University of Science and Technology to found a business, he could hardly have imagined that his company would one day be hailed as the Pearl River Delta's answer to Apple by his former mentor.

But seven years on, his Shenzhen-based DJI Innovations is flying high in the world of unmanned aerial vehicles. DJI says it supplies more than 50 per cent of global demand for such vehicles from the commercial and industrial sectors.

"I was a model enthusiast, but my planes often crashed," he says. "So it was my dream to develop this technology."

Aerial photography is DJI's speciality and its latest model is the Phantom, a flying camera that captures high-definition film and photographs from the sky.

Wang said DJI was the first to make this military-grade technology available to the public. Just the parts for the Phantom, which sells for 6,999 yuan (HK$8,722) on Taobao, would once have cost tens of thousands, Wang says. The Phantom is remote-controlled, with the camera controlled via smartphone or tablet.

Wang says his customers are mainly hobbyists, but the Phantom is also used for surveillance, planning and even to shoot Hollywood films and adverts.

The company has seen turnover grow 7,900 per cent in the last three years and this year will generate revenues of US$131 million. The firm has about 900 employees on the mainland and in Japan, Europe and the United States. It employs 30 researchers in Hong Kong, many of them students or graduates of HKUST.

Wang's mentor, Professor Li Zexiang of HKUST's department of electronic and computer engineering, praised Wang for straying from the usual path his graduates take: going to Silicon Valley or working in finance.

Li believes the Pearl River Delta can surpass Silicon Valley as an innovation hub, with HKUST performing the role of universities like Stanford or Berkeley. And he describes DJI as "our very own Apple".

It's a far cry from the company's beginnings, when Wang and two classmates hired an 80 sq ft office in Shenzhen to take advantage of lower costs and the availability of electronic parts.

"I secretly founded the company in Shenzhen and didn't go back to school for several months," Wang recalls.