Driverless industrial vehicle startup thrives in Shenzhen

Writer: Yang Yunfei  |  Editor: Zhang Chanwen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2023-10-12

Video and photos by Liu Xudong

As the mechanized system lifts and the forklift slowly rises, accurately placing cargo on a 5.8-meter-high rack, VisionNav Robotics’ laboratory in the Hetao Shenzhen-Hong Kong Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation Zone (Hetao) in Futian is bustling.

“Being able to work and develop products in such a great place would not have been possible without the government’s assistance,” Li Luyang, co-founder and CEO of VisionNav Robotics, said.

Li Luyang, co-founder and CEO of VisionNav Robotics, poses for a photo at his company in Futian District. 

VisionNav Robotics, specializing in autonomous forklifts, traction vehicles and other logistics robots, was founded in Shenzhen in 2016 by a group of Ph.D. holders mainly from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The company was initially based in Nanshan before moving to Bao’an when it grew larger. Later, it relocated to Yantian and finally settled in Hetao.

Unique advantage

Li said that the reason why his company finally chose Hetao is quite simple. A company like VisionNav Robotics has very high requirements for its laboratory: it needs a high ceiling. However, such environments could only be found in suburban areas of any first-tier city in China.

Li stressed that government agencies in Hetao understand businesses very well.

A driverless industrial vehicle test-drives at VisionNav Robotics’ laboratory in the Hetao Shenzhen-Hong Kong Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation Zone in Futian.

He said that there are many outstanding officials within the government who have obtained doctoral degrees overseas and have a scientific research background.

“They understand technology and enterprises very well, so communication with them is highly effective. They deeply understand our requirements and roll out policies based on what the company needs at its stage of development,” Li said.

Li highlighted the proximity of Hetao to Hong Kong as an advantage. Many teachers and laboratories from universities in Hong Kong are located in the surrounding area, creating a dense talent pool. Graduates or researchers from Hong Kong universities can come to work in Hetao, making it a gathering place for talent.

The company has been in Hetao for nearly three years and plans to stay here, according to Li.

A leading company

In recent years, industrial robotics has become one of the hottest tech sectors in China as the country encourages the use of advanced technology to enhance efficiency on the production floor.

Riding the tide of the sector’s growth momentum, VisionNav Robotics has experienced remarkable expansion over the past seven years, establishing itself as a leading company in the field of driverless industrial vehicles worldwide.

Since its launch in 2016, the company has achieved extraordinary annual revenue growth rates of around 200% to 300%, with sales soaring approximately tenfold from 2019 to 2021, according to Li.

The company’s business has covered all scenarios of intralogistics, making breakthroughs in complex scenario applications such as 9.4-meter-high rack storage, 2-meter narrow aisle access, unmanned loading and unloading, and multilayer mobile material frame stacking.

Li explained that VisionNav Robotics’ overarching goal is to bring about positive change in the world.

With an estimated 20 million forklift operators and 10 million manual forklifts in use globally, VisionNav Robotics sees immense potential in addressing this aspect of the industry.

Thriving ecosystem

Li said he and his partners chose to locate their company in Shenzhen because it is the most suitable city in China for entrepreneurs.

Compared with other cities in the country, Shenzhen has several prominent advantages in starting a company, he said.

It boasts a strong entrepreneurial spirit, a supportive local government and a thriving supply chain ecosystem for “hard technology” companies. The city’s talent pool exhibits a willingness to join startup ventures rather than working for foreign or State-owned enterprises, according to Li.

The supply chain for “hard technology” companies in Shenzhen is highly developed, with comprehensive upstream and downstream support. There are numerous hardware stores and small manufacturing plants in the city that provide convenient access to research facilities and equipment. A well-developed industrial chain is crucial as it significantly enhances efficiency during the research and development phase, Li said.

“Hard technology” refers to key and core technology that requires long-term research and development and continuous efforts and investment.

Shenzhen’s government has a deep understanding of entrepreneurship and technology, Li said. Many government officials have practical experience working in academia and enterprises, making them knowledgeable about technology and businesses. They are aware of the difficulties and challenges that companies face during different stages of their development. Therefore, they provide customized policies and assistance to support the growth of enterprises, offering substantial help without causing unnecessary disruptions, he added.

Based on these factors, Shenzhen can be considered a paradise for entrepreneurs in the hard tech industry.

“Here in Shenzhen, not only are there many outstanding talents willing to take risks and strive for success, but there is also a well-developed industrial and supply chain system. Coupled with strong government support, starting a business in Shenzhen is the obvious choice,” he said.