Prof. LI Zexiang - A Life in Engineering Research, Education and Entrepreneurship
Prof. Li Zexiang is an academic-entrepreneur with a mission to incubate human creative talents and next-generation companies to speed the age of smart automation
For a researcher dedicated to pushing the frontiers of machine motion and dexterity, it is fitting that Prof. LI Zexiang’s own life should be one constantly on the move.
The electronic and computer engineering front-runner was among the earliest Mainland Chinese students to study robotics as it took off in leading US research universities in the 1980s. He was a driving force behind DJI and is still the company chairman of what has rapidly become the world’s largest consumer drone group, with over 70% market share. Now the indefatigable academic is again setting his sights sky high as a leading contributor to the hi-tech start-up ecosystem being powered forward in southern China’s Greater Bay Area, a region comprising Hong Kong, Macau, and nine neighboring cities in the Pearl River Delta.
Prof. Li’s expertise lies in multi-fingered robotic hands, precision assembly, and motion controllers, the “brains” that generate the speed and mode used to make a machine move. All are key areas for greater automation in the computer, communications and consumer electronics (3C) manufacturing industry, which has a major presence in the Pearl River Delta and forms a vital part of the global supply chain for products such as smartphones and electrical appliances.
He joined the School of Engineering in 1992 in the formative days of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), after 13 years of exploring robotics and artificial intelligence research at Carnegie Mellon University, University of California, Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University. As early as 1998, he set up the University’s Automation Technology Center.
At the Center, Prof. Li, his students and colleagues engage in the theoretical study of assembly processes along with the software and hardware development that can be transferred out to assist industry in the region. Projects currently underway include 3C technology to automate electronic component assembly tasks and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system leveraging cutting-edge robotics to provide auto-landing, positioning, and sensor-fusion navigation. He is also a member of the HKUST Robotics Institute, a multidisciplinary university-wide platform set up in 2015.
But the proudest of his many achievements to date, he noted, is to have helped to integrate education and research with entrepreneurship by fusing previously separate elements into a single entity. Besides DJI, companies now spun off from the Center or Prof. Li’s mentorship include QKM Technology for innovative 3C robotics solutions (2011), ePropulsion Technology for high-performance electric marine propulsion systems (2012), and Walnut Technology (2015), creator of intelligent skateboards equipped with the world’s first e-board posture control system.
From researcher to entrepreneur
Prof. Li’s own realization of how the academic world could work with industry to push forward economic and social development came when a Hong Kong business person arrived at the School of Engineering in the 1990s with a real-life problem.
The industrialist had bought a machine from Japan to help with his aluminum can production line, but could not get it to do what he needed. Nor could the original manufacturer help. “Initially, I turned him down as fixing an actual machine was not really my interest or skill set at the time. But he was desperate. So I asked one of my postdocs to pull out a controller board that we had developed for a robotic hand. Then the researcher spent a month at the factory to retrofit the original controller. From then on, we began to think, how could we take our research from the laboratory and turn it into useful products for industries located around us.”
Setting up Googol
In 1997, Prof. Li registered Googol Technology, a month ahead of a US company with a similar name. The business moniker was suggested by his mathematician wife from a term used by Edward Kasner, an earlier math dynamo, to represent the huge number of 10100. Prof. Li later received a request for use of his company name. He said, “We refused because we had the right spelling!”
Googol became the first hi-tech company in Asia Pacific focused on motion controllers and controller-based systems, the fundamental drivers for microelectronics, robots, computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools, production automation, and other industrial control applications. Prof. Li became one of the University’s early academic-entrepreneurs. By 2008, Googol held the largest market share in its sector in China.
Transforming students into innovators
Meanwhile, experiential learning began to feature in Prof. Li’s teaching at the School of Engineering. One of the first students to take his class providing training for the Hong Kong section of Robocon, a robotics competition organized by the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, was Frank WANG Tao, who later became the founder of DJI. In 2004, the first year the Hong Kong contest was held, the HKUST team did not win. But the students’ interest had been fired up and the next year they did triumph, subsequently earning a place among the top three in the Asia-Pacific final in Beijing.
Frank Wang went on to utilize his Robocon experience to build an autopilot for model helicopters; and to launch DJI. Meanwhile, Prof. Li and the School took note of more than the contest results. It was clear that the students taking part gained hands-on experience in creating a product, from mechanical machining to how to buy components from suppliers in Shenzhen. In addition, major attributes that the successful students called upon, and developed through such learning beyond the classroom, were all key elements for innovation and entrepreneurship: persistence in the face of initial failure, big goals, and confidence that they could develop systems that were 10 times better than others.
In 2012, the School officially introduced experiential learning, which now involves hundreds of students annually in local and overseas engineering design contests and cornerstone projects.
Xbot and X-Tech
With his own entrepreneurial experiences and relentless energy, Prof. Li began to look for further opportunities to synergize human talents emerging from HKUST and other Hong Kong universities with the manufacturing ecosystem of the Greater Bay Area. In 2014, he established the Songshan Lake Xbot Park, in partnership with the Dongguan government, as an incubator for robotics and smart hardware start-ups. The park offers entrepreneurial mentorship, seed funding, and supply chain support, and has already incubated around 50 companies, drawing young businesses not only from the region but also from around the world. From the experience gained from this venture, Prof. Li launched the Hong Kong X-Tech Startup Platform in 2016, together with Sequoia Capital China founding and managing partner Neil SHEN and Prof. CHEN Guanhua of the University of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area have a great chance to be the next start-up powerhouse, according to Prof. Li. He said, “We did a lot of benchmarking, with incubators in Silicon Valley, Beijing, and other places. Our estimate, confirmed by suppliers and chipmakers who provide support here and elsewhere, was that we are five to 10 times faster when it comes to iteration and probably one-tenth or one-fifth the cost. That is our competitive edge.”
What lies ahead
To inspire the even younger generation, Prof. Li is now starting a secondary school with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (STEAM) near the University’s Clear Water Bay campus, together with the Shaw Foundation, which runs the prestigious annual Shaw Prize for the sciences.
He foresees automation and robotics as a positive way to deal with economic and social challenges arising from aging populations. There will also be more machines to add convenience and improve quality of life overall. “We are already working on areas such as construction, autonomous driving, and logistics. So you won’t see a sudden switch to a different way of living. But, after a while, people will not remember what life was like before such products were available.”
On the Move
During Prof. Li Zexiang’s years as a student and researcher in the US, he undertook a host of subjects. For his bachelor degree at Carnegie Mellon University, he majored in electrical engineering and economics. On moving to the University of California, Berkeley, he pursued a master’s in mathematics then a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science. As a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, he studied artificial intelligence. On moving to New York University as an assistant professor, he worked at the robotics and manufacturing lab in the Courant Institute, founded by renowned mathematician and computer scientist Jacob “Jack” SCHWARTZ. It was Schwartz’s influence that propelled Prof. Li’s theoretical leanings toward application, working on multi-fingered robotic hands for automated manufacturing, among others. “That’s where I got my own hands dirty,” he said.
In postgraduate studies with Prof. Li Zexiang, DJI drone company founder Frank Wang continued to work on his autopilot and establishing his business. He used his early unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to conduct aerial surveys and damage assessment following the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and one year later succeeded in sending the firrst unmanned autonomous vehicle to overfly and take aerial footage of Mount Everest.
In 2011, after attending a US product show, the young entrepreneur was asked by an American aerial cinematography company to design a new kind of gimbal, a device for keeping an instrument level in a moving aircraft, to stabilize camera shots from the air. “We then saw many customers were buying the gimbal and autopilot together with a GoPro camera to create their own drone for aerial photography. DJI decided to build all-in-one consumer drones and to go it alone. We would establish our own brand name and channels,” said Prof. Li, who is chairman of DJI. “It was a lot of learning for engineering students, but Frank Wang was not afraid to do anything.”
Recently Prof. Li and Frank Wang received the prestigious 2019 IEEE Robotics and Automation Award for their unique contributions to the development and commercialization of civilian drones, aerial imaging technology, robotics engineering advancement, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
This story was originally published on the SENG In Focus magazine (issue 30, P.10-13).