Robotics startup FJDynamics raises $70M to make manual labor easier

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FJDdynamicsFounded by Wu Di, former chief scientist at DJI, recently closed a $70 million Series B round as it advances its goal of empowering workers in the harshest environments with robotic technologies.

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When I asked Wu what was special about his company’s farming robots, he gave an answer that would make any campaigner sweat: “I don’t think our technology is that special.” He said that the vision of the startup is to make useful and cost-effective robots for the most labor intensive industries.

“You can have the most advanced AI algorithms,” he continued, “but if the technology doesn’t work on the production line or on the farm because you have no industry experience, how does your technology benefit people?”

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The technologies Wu worked on prior to FJDynamics were cutting-edge in every sense. At DJI, he served as chief scientist and oversaw the drone giant’s acquisition of 180-year-old Swedish format camera maker Viktor Hasselblad AB in 2017. Before returning to China, he spent a decade in Sweden, during which he earned his Ph. in domain-specific processor design. He also served as Vice Principal at the fabless semiconductor company Corsonic AB and a director at Swedish luxury sports car maker Koenigsegg AB.

“After seeing all these first-class technologies, it’s a stretch to say that we [FJDynamics] are a high-tech company,” said the founder, who donned a slightly faded checkered shirt and a pair of thin-skinned glasses on the morning of our interview.

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We sat in a temporary living room, a partition consisting of a few desks, separated by movable walls from the rest of the open plan office. Based in Shenzhen’s bustling tech hub, Shenzhen, the company was expanding rapidly and reaching 1,000 employees.

Wu Di, founder and CEO of FJDynamics

In 2019, Wu left DJI to start FJDynamics. The company focused on manufacturing equipment such as agricultural robots, unmanned lawnmowers, orchard sprayers and feed pushing machines. Since then it has forayed into other sectors that rely heavily on manual work, such as construction and construction.

As Beijing calls for digital upgrades in the country’s traditional industries, Chinese companies such as FJDynamics are in hot demand by investors. FJDynamics has attracted ranks of heavyweight financiers including Tencent itself and state-owned automaker Dongfeng Asset Management. DJI initially had a stake in the company but has since sold its shares.

It declined to name its sole investor in its latest Series B round and said only that it is a major Internet firm in China. The funding, the company said, will allow it to develop its suite of robotics automation technology in agriculture, facility management, construction and horticulture, along with supporting growing demand for the company’s ESG product offerings in more than 60 countries.

Over the years, a handful of engineers have left DJI to set up their own shops or be involved in others’ new projects. Portable battery maker EcoFlow, hairdryer Zuwi, electric toothbrush brand Evovera are among the most high-profile. For Wu, what turned him away from a coveted position at the world’s largest drone company was the sense of disconnection he felt while making “luxury” hardware.

“If you look at how robotic technology is being implemented, there are many companies using drones and autonomous vehicles. But most of the people on Earth are not getting the benefit of it.”

“Agriculture, construction, horticulture… the working conditions in these sectors are physically demanding and many of us are doing this kind of work. The question is, how do we improve their work environment? How to use robotics technology, and that doesn’t just mean replacing them with robots,” the founder said.

image credit: Cow feed pusher from FJDynamics, printed with the logo of Sverken, a Swedish agricultural company it acquired

One of the popular products from FJDynamics is the Automatic Feed Pusher. In order to produce high quality milk, cows have to be milked about ten times a day. Farms regularly require employees to be on site 24 hours a day. For example, about three hay feeders are needed to shift a farm with 500 cows. But in poor countries, farms may not have enough workers and workers to care for cows all day, even in cold weather.

FJDynamics aims to ease the work of farmers. Its vision-guided feeder, which costs around 20,000 euros, can feed up to 500 cows a day. In 2019, it acquired the 110-year-old Swedish Agricultural Company Severken, which has helped propel the Chinese firm’s feed of robots to work.

“I never talk to my clients about technology. Farmers are more interested in whether my product can help improve crop yields,” Wu said. “Every farmer is an economist.”

Due to the company’s approach in “making technology affordable,” margins are “modest” and management is cautious about operating costs.

Currently, about 40% of startup sales in about 60 countries take place outside China. Many Chinese companies expanding overseas are concerned about their origins, for fear of hostility against anything labeled “Chinese”. Wu takes a more proactive approach.

“Even though I have lived in Europe for ten years, I cannot rip my skin. I don’t think it matters – whether it’s a Chinese, American or Swedish entrepreneur … as long as you create great products and benefit my customers, there will be users.”

Data compliance is particularly key to the company’s global expansion. FJDynamics provides the hardware and software while its local partners help deploy the “system” using the data. Microsoft Azure is its main cloud partner outside of China, allowing “elastic deployments while meeting data privacy requirements such as GDPR.”

“Our culture is that we don’t want data,” Wu said.

Unlike smartphones or drones, which require sophisticated processors, FJDynamics’ products use relatively simple chips that can be found in China, so the firm is likely immune to recent supply chain disruptions, the founder acknowledged. .

While Wu is no longer working on the most advanced technology, he looks for ways to impart his knowledge. When he’s not developing the next agricultural robot, he lectures at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.

“I live a simple life that focuses on two things – the product [FJDynamics] and education,” said the founder. “I’ve seen a lot and realized that money can’t change you or make you happy. That’s why you need a simple goal, and achieving that simple goal makes your life happier.”

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