Dr. ZHANG Yunfei Shares Insights on Innovation and Start-Up

The third episode in the HKUST Entrepreneurship Fireside Chat Series returned on December 15, 2020, entitled “A 10-year Journey from an Engineering PhD Student to a Revolutionary Entrepreneur”. The featured guest speaker was Dr. ZHANG Yunfei, Founder and President of Zhuhai Yunzhou Intelligence Technology Ltd. (Yunzhou), China’s first unmanned surface vehicles (USV) company. Starting off with a warm welcome from Dean of Engineering Prof. Tim CHENG, the webinar brought a homecoming yet insightful conversation on innovation and entrepreneurship between Dr. Zhang and the moderator Prof. Jack LAU, both HKUST PhD graduates.

Transformative 10 years in entrepreneurship

Dr. Zhang used to like building ship models since childhood. He received his MPhil and PhD degrees in Mechanical Engineering at HKUST in 2009 and 2020 respectively. Since commencing his PhD study, he embarked on unmanned ships research with other HKUST students during their spare time. Looking at the achievements of Yunzhou, he considered that starting and sustaining an enterprise is never plain sailing.

As Dr. Zhang recalled, the team conducted extensive research and development spanning over three years for their first unmanned ship, which was only launched two and a half years after Yunzhou was established. Throughout the decade, Yunzhou continued to innovate and develop unmanned ships of different tonnage and size, in order to cope with the needs of different massive projects. For example, to conduct monitoring of the waters for the project of immersed tunnel of Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the Western Artificial Island. Seeing the growth of the market, in 2020, Yunzhou has produced more than 1,000 unmanned ships and its sales have outgrown the previous year by five times.

Nonetheless, launching a start-up requires more than technology and its end-product. Dr. Zhang mentioned that while engineering students devote their passion to designing products, some often omit the importance of understanding the market demand. This realization came to Dr. Zhang when he considered starting a business. He and his partners therefore spent a whole year conducting market research across provinces and regions such as Yunnan, Sichuan and Guangxi, in order to gain thorough understanding of market needs. It was when they confirmed the feasibility of the idea that they formally started Yunzhou in 2010.

Learning beyond boundaries

Dr. Zhang said his learning experience at HKUST and Shenzhen Experimental School had significant impact on his path, transforming him from a PhD student to a successful entrepreneur as both allowed him to cultivate his hobbies through the free space and facilities. Because of this, he attaches great importance to education and creating better opportunities for future talents. In 2020, Yunzhou held the first Wanshan Smart Boat Open Competition, inviting teams of tertiary students to put theories learned and algorithms designed into actual models.

As an HKUST alumnus, Dr. Zhang cares much about the development of the juniors. Earlier, he gifted two Dolphin 1 surface rescue vehicles to HKUST. The software of the vehicles was also made open for students to study and explore, or eventually to come up with new algorithms or creations.

To all his juniors aiming to start their own businesses, he believes it is crucial to have a clear vision of their career aspirations. He suggested students adopt a “T-shaped” learning framework. Horizontally, he encourages them to expand their skill sets, which should be comprehensive including technical knowledge and necessary skills in managing a business such as communications and financial management. Vertically, he stresses the importance to deepen their expertise in the industry for growth and development.

Never-ending exploration

Looking ahead, Dr. Zhang said, throughout the past decade, he has been constantly learning and visualizing how unmanned system on water could serve societal needs. With the vision to explore the unknowns in the ocean which could be correlated to climate change and natural disasters, Yunzhou is working on another revolutionary technology – Intelligent Mobile Ocean Stereo Observation System (IMSOS), which integrates cross-media domain including underwater, road and aerial to operations in marine or environment scientific research. The technological evolution is expected to break new ground for future development strategy in the industry. Being the pilot in the industry with its creativity, Yunzhou shall continue to venture into the ocean and beyond.

Watch the full recording of this webinar here or read the transcript here.

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