Sun, Aug 12, 2018 - Page 15 News List

The Shenzhen billionaire chasing his Stanford dream

Bill Liu aims to make big displays that can be rolled up and put away in a pocket, which smartphone makers might find appealing

By Blake Schmidt  /  Bloomberg

The idea came to him while lounging on the Stanford University lawn as an electrical engineering student: A flexible display that could be tucked away like a pen.

“Big screens that we can roll up and put in our pocket,” said Bill Liu (劉自鴻), 35, cofounder of Shenzhen, China-based unicorn Royole Corp (柔宇科技).

Liu has been chasing that dream ever since and after demonstrating the world’s thinnest flexible, full-color smartphone display in 2014, he now has a long list of venture capitalists backing him.

Following a stint as a research scientist at IBM Corp in New York, Liu moved to Shenzhen and founded Royole with two other engineers with Stanford backgrounds.

Now in its sixth year, the start-up was valued at US$5 billion in its latest Series E round of funding.

Many of its 2,000 employees are working to mass produce the displays at a Shenzhen production campus built with Royole’s cache of venture capital money.

Liu sees an opportunity to change one of the most fundamental human-machine interfaces of our time. By offering a solution to the conflict between visual experience and portability, he figures Royole can overhaul the devices by which most information is absorbed these days.

“People really want to see beautiful, high-resolution big screens, which is why TVs and theaters keep getting bigger,” he said. “But it’s at conflict with portability. If we can make something that combines both in one device, it can be amazing.”

Company filings show Liu has about a 42 percent stake of the company, giving him a US$2.1 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Royole’s line of products include 3D mobile theaters, wearable flex displays and a smart writing pad, which it sells on, and flagship stores in China, the US and Europe.

However, its main source of revenue is business-to-business sales of its technology solutions, such as a lamp by China’s Opple Lighting Co (歐普照明), which can be adjusted with touch technology built into the stand.

Liu said he is working on potential deals with smartphone makers and vehicle companies interested in Royole’s curved dashboard.

A partnership with Chinese athletic goods maker Li-Ning Sports Goods Co (李寧) is also in the works, he said.

Flexible displays, including the curved design used by Samsung Electronics Co, account for about one-third of total smartphone display shipments, IHS Markit analyst Jerry Kang said.

The technology will have a majority of the market by 2022, when shipments of smartphone displays are expected to have tripled, he said.

“Mobile brands will try to make their products with larger screens in a more convenient way,” Kang said.

Royole is not the only game in town or even the biggest. BOE Technology Group Co’s (京東方) flexible AMOLED display production line in Chengdu, China, began running May 11, the company said on its WeChat account.

Total investment for the line is 46.5 billion yuan (US$6.8 billion).

Royole’s investors include Knight Capital, IDG Capital, Poly Capital Management, AMTD Group, the funds of Chinese tycoon Xie Zhikun (解直錕) and the venture capital arm of the Shenzhen government.

Liu said he has found inspiration in Shenzhen entrepreneurs, such as Huawei Technologies Co (華為) founder Ren Zhengfei (任正非), as well as those with roots in Silicon Valley.

He recently met Apple Inc cofounder Steve Wozniak at a panel near Shenzhen, where the US company is planning a research and development center.

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