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."