Personal Growth

Disruptive DNA: Dr Shi Zhengrong

January 2016

Emerging from the youngest child of a famine-struck family in China's rural east to become the world's first solar billionaire, Shi Zhengrong's rise, fall and rise again over the last fifty years has been a phoenix-like transformation.

In 1989, he was a brilliant PhD student who became an Australian resident, taking refuge from China's Tiananmen Square crackdown. By 2007, he was back in China, where Time Magazine named him a Hero of the Environment for trailblazing the mass-production of solar cell technology. His personal wealth was estimated at over $3 billion.

Two years ago, his company faltered, his fortunes plunged - and Shi was ousted from Suntech, the solar company he founded in 2001.

“Of course, there were many lessons I learned," says Shi.

Today, though, his skills are in big demand.

The Australian government's recently announced 'Ideas Boom' anticipates a national transition to a technology-driven economy as the resources sector continues to dive. The policy targets people like Shi Zhengrong: talented innovators, skilled scientists, agile business leaders and savvy entrepreneurs.

"Of course there were many lessons I learnt."

Shining Student

Shi's school results were outstanding and he left his farming family for university at just 16, completing a bachelor's degree in Optical Science at Changchun University, then a Master's degree in laser physics in Shanghai. He was chosen for a Chinese government program that sent promising scholars overseas.

“All young people in China, when we learn English, we plan to use it in the USA," he says, then demonstrates: 'California, Alabama,' – with a passable southern American twang.

But Shi instead headed to Australia to begin a PhD at the School of Physics at the University of NSW.

In 1989, following the Tiananmen Square massacres in Beijing, Shi was one of more than 40,000 Chinese students granted permanent Australian visas.

That same year, he made contact with Professor Martin Green, an internationally-renowned solar energy researcher whose work with the UNSW's world-leading Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, by then partly funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) because of its groundbreaking work. “He needed people like me, so I went to knock on his door."

Within a couple of years, Shi had completed an engineering PhD under Green's supervision. Soon after, he was asked to join Green and another leading researcher, Stuart Wenham, to form Pacific Solar, a private company set up to commercialise UNSW solar technologies.

Appointed the research and development director at Pacific Solar, Shi pressured the board to move into solar panel production.

“Pacific Solar was supposed to be a commercial company, but in reality it was a research and development company trying to commercialise technology," Shi says.

He suggested large-scale manufacturing of very simple solar cell technology could get the technology out fast – and pushed for Pacific Solar to move into high-volume production.

But the risk-averse board was loathe to shift funds from research that was developing the highly efficient, second-generation PV panels, into production of lower-end panels, despite Shi's assurance that this would generate ongoing revenue that could be plunged back into research.

“The response I got was a bit disappointing," he admits. Within a couple of years, he could see that the company's funding would run out before manufacturing could start. “I just felt I could do more."

He left the group to work in partnership with a Chinese government agency, forming Suntech. He took a risk moving his family back to China – he was an Australian citizen with two young sons and owned several properties in Sydney.

Shi can't explain his entrepreneurial desire – but credits at least some of it to his hard-working family. His identical twin brother also completed a PhD – this one in the US – then started his own company, Shi says. “Maybe we share some entrepreneurial genes."

Demand for solar panels in Germany and the US was growing and Shi says that talking to friends in China made him realise the opportunities that may be available abroad. Returning to visit, he found huge changes in China and he set up some meetings to work out if he could realise his dream, to mass-manufacture solar panels.

“People in China wanted to see a business plan. I'd never written a business plan before, so I found a template in an MBA textbook and with my knowing the industry, it wasn't hard for me to do."

Rise and fall of the Sun King

After he moved to China and transformed his start-up, Suntech Power, into the world's largest solar panel manufacturer, Shi was called 'The Sun King,' and by 2007, his fortune estimated at $3 billion

But Shi has kept a low profile for the last few years.

Suntech rocketed to success a decade ago, but this rapid expansion made it vulnerable when the global financial crisis coincided with a worldwide glut of solar panels.

Demand plummeted. Suntech (the first PV manufacturer to list on the New York Stock Exchange) was close to bankruptcy, bad investment decisions were made - and Shi, the very public face of the company, was dumped by the very board members he had appointed.

His former company, scraping through near-bankruptcy without their founder and key technical strategist, was acquired by renewable energy equipment giant Shunfeng International.

Shi was devastated and to this day believes the board's decision was wrong. He is no longer involved with Suntech in any capacity. “It was my baby, I founded it and to be honest, even by 2012 I didn't expect I will end my career this way. It's hard, but I got over it and I'm still young, I can still do many other things."

Today, he's focused on the integration of renewable energy technologies. “Innovation together with government policy is very important to promote and push these new things ahead fast," he says.

From scientist to entrepreneur

“It took me a while to transform from a scientist into an entrepreneur," he says. “But now when I come back to look at whatever technology or product being developed, I always come from that entrepreneur angle."

Shi has been a passionate supporter of renewable energy for many years, and is dedicated to the use technology to overcome climate change.

A regular speaker at industry panels, his wry humour and affable manner is as appealing as his vast insider knowledge and his brilliant insights as a photovoltaics physicist.

“We have to transform to a new economy, there's plenty of opportunities and it's something I feel very excited about," he says. “I keep learning new things myself, identifying technologies and entrepreneurs and trying to provide more solutions for the future."

Shi is now focused back on his original pursuit of renewable energy innovation, rather than mass-production.

“There are plenty of people doing [mass production] very well and costs are continuing to fall," he says, though he acknowledges it will take time to commercialise the new solar developments which now boast over 40% efficiency.

The next big disruption will involve the integration of solar with other technology, he says. “There's already plenty of technology and products doing this."

He cites solar panels paired with storage batteries – and solar energies combined with heat pumps, in a sort-of solar driven reverse-cycle air conditioning.

He says there's a real key to mass-production success. “You have to be very market focused and consumer driven. You need to be very cost-competitive, it's not enough to be green – it has to be affordable too. Consumers have to see an advantage."


Contributing Writer: Fran Molloy

Contributing Photographer: Brendan Fitzpatrick