SA drone startups, companies look overseas to shore up business

SA drone manufacturing companies startups are aiming to hit it big overseas — in both developing and emerging markets — with four such startups reporting that business with international customers is taking off.

Earlier this year Cape Town based Aerobotics revealed that following a R29-million investment from local venture capital (VC) company Paper Plane Ventures (see this story), the startup was looking to bolster its US staff contingent, by hiring a further six persons for the office this year.

The startup uses drones and aerial data to help farmers in South Africa and a number of countries to analyse crops and orchards to spot disease and pests.

In February, CEO James Paterson said the startup had two employees in the US office. At the time Aerobotics had about 50 employees in total — up from about 10 two years ago.

We are on track to double, hopefully triple revenue by the end of the year all of which is through international sales, says drone company

Paper Plane Ventures’ founder Stuart van der Veen who joined Aerobotics as chief platform officer earlier this year, was together with CCO Andrew Burdoch, expected to relocate to the startup’s new US office in Los Angeles this year.

Aerobotics isn’t the only startup where business is taking off overseas.

Deal with Indian company

Ranmarine founder Richard Hardiman (pictured above) told Ventureburn last month that he had just that month entered into a joint venture with an Indian company and has moved some of its manufacturing and research and development (R&D) capability to Mumbai.

The startup has designed the WasteShark — 24-hour on-the-water drone. The solar-powered drone collects detritus, marine waste and chemical substances from ports and canals.

“We have opened up markets now in Scandinavia, Panama, Mexico, Nigeria, Romania as well as the US, UK and mainland Europe with three new distributors in South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore signed just last week,” he said.

While he founded the startup in 2015 in South Africa, the company was later re-incorporated in the Netherlands at the start of last year as RanMarine Technology BV.

“We are now looking at Series-A funding with several VC’s and investment vehicles in the EU to help scale up,” added Hardiman, who pointed out that he has self-funded his startup to date.

While he said the startup’s revenue is “not where we want it”, it has been doubling quarter-on-quarter for the last 12 months — a trend he believes will continue as the startup gets into new markets.

The startup recently added a new product — the DataShark which focuses on the collection of data from water.

He said in the next month or so the startup we will be releasing its OilShark specifically designed to deal with ad hoc oil spills in harbours along with our autonomous docking station which has been in a two-year R&D cycle.

Hardiman isn’t the only one who has found international markets receptive.

‘They are hungry for innovative products’

Dronescan CEO Jasper Pons said the company has found Latin America to be a “very keen market”.

The Durban-based software company — which was started in 2013 by Pons and Craig Leppan — has developed software that allows drones to scan inventory using ScanMan software.

“They (Latin Americans) are hungry for innovative products there and not afraid of new things. They seem to easily break down corporate hurdles and we have direct access to decision makers in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and surrounding countries. Of course the scale of those markets is 10 times bigger than South Africa,” he added.

He said the company has also sold some of its inventory scanning robots to a bespoke customer in Australia, UK and Germany as well as Malaysia, with recent interest from India.

“We have only scratched the surface of the US market, but we are continuing our long-term strategy there,” he said.

Back in 2017 Leppan told Ventureburn that the big next phase is to roll out to Nestle internationally.

Pons told Ventureburn last month that his company has done a few pilot projects with Nestle around the world and is now negotiating with individual distribution centres to conclude purchase orders.

In addition, he said other fast-moving consumer companies and their logistics partners had also engaged with the startup. “Some have massive market share in their countries and yet we have never heard of them in SA,” he added.

While in 2017 he revealed to Ventureburn that the startup has previously been able to get an undisclosed amount in matching grant funding from South Africa’s Support Programme for Industrial Innovation — he said last month that the startup has not needed any additional funding for the past three years.

‘Revenue to double with foreign orders’

Meanwhile the founder of Knysna based Altiuas (formerly known as SteadiDrone) says his company is on track to double revenue — all of which is derived from overseas sales — by the end of this year and is looking for possible investors.

The company, which was founded by Duran de Villiers in 2012, is currently the world’s leading vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) commercial unmanned aircraft manufacturing company.

Last month he told Ventureburn the company had recorded sales of just over R15-million to August 14, compared to R15.4-million for the full year 2017. The company has 15 full-time staff (up from 12 in 2017).

“We are on track to double, hopefully triple this with two new aircraft (models) by the end of the year and our goal is to break R100-million within the next one to two years,” said De Villiers (in 2017 he told Ventureburn sales were on track to reach R50-million that same year — Ed).

The company’s drones sell for between $50 000 to over $400 000 each, depending on the model.

This, while customers range from smaller companies that offer aerial services like mapping, inspections, surveillance to very large companies such as the world’s largest copper mining company, Freeport McMoRan — which typically use the aircraft internally for surveillance and security, asset management, mapping, mining and others.

So, is this another example of South Africans punching above their weight?

Read more: SA startup Aerobotics secures R29m in funding from Paper Plane Ventures
Read more: 6 drone startups in South Africa to look out for [Digital All Stars]

Featured image: Ranmarine founder Richard Hardiman (Supplied) 

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