The Business Herald’s markets and banking reporter.

Liu Ruopeng - Jetpack backer ready for liftoff

Christopher Adams meets a Chinese investor with some big ideas - and a controlling stake in a high-profile Kiwi venture.
Liu Ruopeng's plans sound like science fiction, but he's convinced they'll soon be a practical reality. Photo / Christopher Adams
Liu Ruopeng's plans sound like science fiction, but he's convinced they'll soon be a practical reality. Photo / Christopher Adams

Anyone who approaches Liu Ruopeng's office is delivered a blunt message: "No disturbing", says a sign on the door.

Given that introduction, you could be forgiven for expecting a cantankerous character - something like Mr Burns from The Simpsons - to be waiting inside.

Instead, I find an affable 32-year-old with some pretty out-there ideas about how technologies of the future will shape our lives.

The Kuang-Chi Science founder doesn't seem miffed that I'm more than an hour late for the interview at the firm's Shenzhen headquarters, following a flight delay out of Beijing, and sweating profusely from the stress and humid heat of southern China.

Our conversation over the next hour covers everything from jetpacks to flying cars, invisibility cloaks and space travel.

Kuang-Chi's vision, he says, is to turn science fiction into reality. Its motto: "the future is now".

No wonder, then, that he has been dubbed the "Elon Musk of China" by the Chinese media, a reference to the US-based visionary who founded both the electric car maker Tesla and rocket developer SpaceX.

Kuang-Chi has deep links with New Zealand, having invested A$44 million in Christchurch-based jetpack maker the Martin Aircraft Company over the past couple of years, giving it a 52 per cent shareholding.

The company was introduced to the jetpack when Liu accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping on his visit to this country in 2014.

Hong Kong-listed Kuang-Chi is also developing airships and balloons for near-space flight, surveillance and big data collection.

The company was founded in 2010 by Liu and a group of friends with whom he studied at Duke University in the United States, where he earned a PhD in electrical and computer engineering.

While at Duke he helped develop a prototype invisibility cloak, using "metamaterials" which bend electromagnetic radiation, such as light, around objects.

"We think the driving force for innovation over the next 10 years will be imagination," Liu says.

A Martin jetpack shows off its stuff. Photo / Supplied
A Martin jetpack shows off its stuff. Photo / Supplied

He says the start-up capital for Kuang-Chi came in the form of a US$50,000 loan from his mother.

Since then the company has reportedly raised around US$200 million from investors and has been a driving force behind the push to turn the Martin Jetpack - conceived 35 years ago in Kiwi founder Glenn Martin's garage, before Liu was even born - into a commercial reality.

ASX-listed Martin Aircraft is targeting the second half of this year for the first commercial deliveries of the jetpack, which can fly as high as 1000m and reach speeds of more than 70km/h.

Set to be priced at up to US$250,000, the machine was shown off during a demonstration flight in front of a large crowd in Shenzhen late last year.

A Chinese joint venture between Kuang-Chi and Martin Aircraft has signed agreements for the delivery of 100 jetpacks and 20 simulators in China.

And there are plans to establish a factory in China to manufacture the flying machines, which Liu says could open within a year-and-a-half and have the capacity to build more than 1000 jetpacks annually.

He's convinced that wealthy Chinese commuters will soon be using Martin Jetpacks to get to and from work, zooming from building to building and leaving behind the congested streets below.

"If you really look at those big cities, they are extremely crowded," Liu says.

"The jetpack is a great machine that allows you to take off and land in most places. It's much easier to operate this machine compared with helicopters because they need a particular area to take off and land."

Liu sees the jetpack as part of a new wave of technologies that will revolutionise air transport, including flying cars. "The jetpack is just part of the story, not the whole story," he says.

If I don't fly I will not allow the jetpack to go to the market ... at the end of the year I will fly.

Liu insists this isn't pie-in-the-sky dreaming - nor will this bright, shiny future be reserved for another generation.

"Come on, technology is developing very fast," he says, waving his smartphone in the air. "We believe that in five years most of the technology and products [being developed by Kuang-Chi] can go into a very mature and commercial status and be in a real service to save lives, help people and make cities better."

The company's Cloud surveillance airship was used in December to help locate Tian Zeming, a survivor of a devastating construction waste landslide in Shenzhen which killed 69 people.

While great strides have been made in the jetpack's development, a difference in opinion over the company's path to commercialisation led Glenn Martin to resign from the board in June last year, three months after its initial public offering and stock exchange listing.

At the time, Martin told the Business Herald it had been his dream to develop a jetpack for personal use, but the company had been increasingly focused on developing an aircraft for professional applications such as police and search and rescue.

"It's become clear since the IPO that the company is going in a different direction to my vision," he said. "I haven't left the company - the company has left me."

So was Liu disappointed to see Martin go?

"I think it's fine," he says, tapping his hands on the table to make the point. "We invested in the company not because of the board of the company. We invested in the company because of its dream and spirit."

It would appear, however, that Martin's vision for the jetpack has gone out the window. Liu says reality had to set in and the jetpack couldn't go on being just a dream for another 35 years.

"Everything happened after our investment," he says of the recent development spurt. "New engineers came in, new aviation technology - all the stuff."

Liu says training people to fly the jetpack will now become a major focus.

"It's a great product," he says. "The issue now is how can you fly it? It's a completely new industry."

Liu says he has committed to flying the jetpack himself before any aircraft are sold.

"If I don't fly I will not allow the jetpack to go to the market," he says. "At the end of the year I will fly."

Liu Ruopeng

Role: Chairman and founder of Shenzhen-based Kuang-Chi Science

Age: 32

Born: Xi'an, the capital of China's Shaanxi province

Grew up in: Shenzhen, a major city and technology hub in Guangdong province, near Hong Kong

Education: PhD in electrical and computer engineering from Duke University in the United States

Christopher Adams travelled to China as a recipient of the New Zealand China Council Media Award.

- NZ Herald

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