Visits to Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and to the recent World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin: Lukas Meier and Zhenzhong Su completed a strenuous two-week tour of China in September. The ETH spin-off was chosen as one of ten companies making up the Swiss national start-up team and took part in the trip to China organised by Venturelab, a funding body that supports young entrepreneurs.
“It was helpful for making initial contacts with investors,” Meier explains. But it was his co-founder Su who had to work the hardest. “It was often the case that we spent half an hour chatting with potential investors in English, but then Su would switch to Chinese and suddenly everyone became clear about everything.” They both had to laugh as Meier tells the story from his point of view. Su had an advantage that could be crucial for breaking into China’s market: he is Chinese.
Founded in August 2017, the start-up Fixposition produces high-precision navigation systems that can be fitted into autonomous devices such as drones, robots or driverless vehicles. Meier shows the tiny component, not much bigger than a matchbox, and explains: “This technology enables us to pinpoint the position of a device fitted with our system with centimetre accuracy”. The revolutionary aspect is that localisation is even possible in obstructed environments with a weak GPS signal, such as among high-rise buildings in cities, in forests or even underground.
To make the system work, Su and Meier combine the advantages of cutting-edge satellite navigation with advanced computer vision technology. Or to put it another way: even with limited signal reception, the car, drone or robot can still operate by visually scanning the environment and checking it for recognisable details. “That’s exactly how our eyes work as well,” Su says.
Drones – a billion-dollar market
To survive as a start-up, the company founders have decided to concentrate on drones for the time being. “Drones are no longer marketed purely as toys, but are increasingly being used for industrial applications,” Su says. He estimates the value of the global market for commercially used drones that Fixposition wants to break into at around three billion Swiss francs. Drones are currently being used in industry for tasks such as autonomous inspection or monitoring of installations, delivering goods or spraying pesticides on crops.
In China, drones are also being used in a way that is still fairly unheard of in the west: light shows in place of traditional fireworks. “Every city in China has this sort of light show,” Su says and plays a video on his mobile phone showing a swarm of drones creating a magical spectacle in the night sky with intricate colour patterns above a Chinese city. China is not only a crucial market for Fixposition because so many companies are located there that need drones with high-precision navigation systems: the world’s biggest drone manufacturers are based there as well. Fixposition has already signed a partnership agreement with one of them.
Revenue stream in the first year