Samsung grabbed world headlines Wednesday when it announced plans to ship a foldable smartphone sometime next year. But a little-known rival was actually first to announce such a product a few weeks ago and aims to beat the South Korean giant again by shipping it in December. Startup Royole started ramping a Gen6 fab for flexible displays at its Shenzhen headquarters in June. Its whopping $1.7 billion in private financing and 2,000+ staff is matched by its outsized ambitions to become a conglomerate like Samsung selling both leading-edge displays and consumer devices that use them. Royole’s FlexPai tablet is based on its 7.8-inch AMOLED display that folds into the size of a smartphone. The flexible display is in pilot production in a 1.1 million square foot fab that ultimately will be able to produce a million eight-inch panels a month. While China is home to other display makers, Royole is believed to be the farthest along in having commercially available flexible displays. If successful, Royole could become a natural supplier for China’s top-tier handset makers such as Huawei, Oppo or Xiaomi if they want to have a foldable to match Samsung. To kickstart its display business, the startup has already started shipping tablets, headsets and even hats and T-shirts using its displays. “We won’t do anything that’s traditional,” said Ze Yuan of Royole with a laugh. “We are targeting niche markets with high margin products and form factors that will never be anything the market has seen before,” said the R&D manager, who earned his PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford.