'Elon Musk of China' aims to give the world a commercial jetpack - but is it just flight of fancy?
Dr Liu Ruopeng is an ambitious man. One of his dreams is to produce the long-awaited flying jackets that can allow people to travel in the air without getting on a plane.
This goal has earned him the nickname “the Elon Musk of China” in the local media, after the Canadian-American billionaire founder of electric car maker Tesla and owner of rocket company SpaceX, of whom Liu is a big fan.
The 32-year-old Liu, who has a doctorate in electronic engineering from Duke University, is the president of the Shenzhen-based Kuang-Chi Institute of Advanced Technology and the chairman of KuangChi Science, an emerging technology and innovation firm listed in the Hong Kong stock market.
Liu recently made headlines on the mainland after acquiring a controlling share in the company that makes the Martin Jetpack, an experimental ducted-fan-based gadget that can propel a person in the air like Iron Man.
It was invented by New Zealander Glenn Martin, who has been dedicated to its research since 1981. In tests, the Martin Jetpack has successfully been able to carry a payload of up to 120kg and to fly at 35 kilometres per hour at an altitude of 1,500 metres.
Now with Kuang-Chi Science’s acquisition of a 52 per cent stake, the inventor’s firm Martin Aircraft is likely to manufacture Jetpacks with Kuang-Chi.
In February, Martin Aircraft raised US$27 million in an initial public offering in Australia, and its valuation jumped to US$3 billion soon after another IPO in Hong Kong. The company aims to officially release the Jetpack product globally by 2017.
Liu and Martin share a similar vision of the promising future for a personal flying device. Liu believes wealthy Chinese would be keen on owning Jetpacks.
WATCH: The Martin Jetpack in action
Liu and his team at Kuang-Chi Science – a firm founded in 2010 – are also interested in developing cutting-edge aerospace technology and metamaterials (synthetic materials with properties not found in nature).
Liu has previously told the mainland media that people should dare to do what others have not. Liu said he should make his own way in the field of technology and science.
After Google released its Project Loon, releasing high-altitude balloons delivering internet signals in order to connect people in remote areas, Kuang-Chi Science released its own space balloon – the “Yun Duan”, which means Cloud – in December, pledging to provide internet access to millions of Chinese people.
The base for the space balloon is called “Apollo basement” and is located in the Shenzhen Longgang district. Kuang-Chi tested the balloon in February, claiming that the balloon could beam Wi-fi signals in a radius of 100 kilometres at an altitude of 4,000 metres.
Liu himself made a splash in local scientific circles after publishing an article, with other researchers, in the journal Science in 2009 on a proposed design for an “invisibility cloak”, composed of thousands of glass-like fibres which deflect light from its surface.
Awards and honours followed. At age 29, Liu was selected as a top-level “863 specialist” in metamaterials, a national honour and one rarely granted to someone so young. The “863” is a code name for a top-level government-sponsored research project.
When President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, the Chinese leader toured a few technology companies in Shenzhen – and Kuang-Chi Institute was the first stop his delegation visited.
It was also reported in the media that Martin Jetpack acquisition was made during Xi’s visit to New Zealand, and that the deal was supported by both the Chinese and New Zealand governments.
However, Liu still faces challenges – among them questions on whether his research in space technology and metamaterials have exhausted state funding without coming up with a single commercial product as yet.
Some of Liu’s critics have called Kuang-Chi Science’s concepts a “bubble” that swallows cash from stock investors. By last September, the company lost more than 15.4 million yuan (HK$19.5 million) for three financial quarters in a row.
But Liu did not stop exploring digital metamaterials. Rather, he continues to invest in more profitable companies.
Last month Kuang-Chi Science spent 1.6 billion yuan to become the largest shareholder of Long Sheng stocks issued by Zhejiang Longsheng Auto Parts Company. The company’s revenue surpassed more than 400 million yuan by designing and exporting car-chair parts, according to the National Business Daily.
“Kuang-Chi will not only invest with money, but also will invest with technology and human resources. Through the investment [in Longsheng], we’ll continue to explore metamaterials, structural design and so on,” Liu said at a recent press conference.
“We have rich experience in research and development. It’s our show time now,” he added.