Careers in photonics: From engineer to entrepreneur

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Carlos Lee speaks to Xiaojun Li, founder and general manager, Shanghai Feibo Laser Technologies


Can you tell me your educational background and your work experience?

My name is Xiaojun Li but you can call me Jack. I received my Bachelor of Science from Peking University in 1996, an MSc from the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea, in 1998, and a PhD from Boston University in 2005. 

Between 2000 and 2003, I worked as a laser scientist for Lasersharp Corporation in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, which was founded by Hong Po. I joined nLight in 2006 and led the industrial laser programme in the Shanghai branch for seven years before starting Feibo Laser in 2012. 

I am a member of both academic and commercial laser societies in China, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics (SIOM) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and guest professor at Nanjing University.   

How and why did you start Feibo? 

At the beginning of the 21st century, the laser market was booming in China, fueling innovation in laser technologies and applications. The fibre laser, with its inherent technical advantages, was gaining great momentum in penetrating the industrial laser market. During that period, IPG was dominating the market globally.

Coupled with the fast economic growth in China, I saw great opportunities in the fibre laser business. In late 2011, I decided to leave nLight and start Feibo laser, partnering with SIOM, at the Chinese Academy of Science.  

Can you tell me about Feibo?

Shanghai Feibo Laser Technologies is based in Jiading, Shanghai, with two manufacturing facilities in Nanjing and Suqian, Jiangsu province. Since being founded in 2012, Feibo has delivered more than 7,000 units of medium- to high-power CW/QCW fibre lasers to China and abroad, serving material processing, medical and scientific research markets. 

SIOM, a shareholder of Feibo, is a technology innovator in laser materials, components and technologies. With more than 1,000 PhD students, researchers and staff, it outputs 500 patents and more than 3,000 technical publications per year. The combined brain power of SIOM and Feibo gives a unique competitive edge compared to other Chinese laser companies.

Feibo has more than 200 employees, and more than 6,000m2 of cleanroom space and a 1,000m2 application research lab. We are looking to expand the product line and services to solid state lasers, ultrafast lasers, and application solutions to meet the ever changing and more stringent market demands.  

What challenges have you faced building the company?

In addition to the usual challenges, I was faced with two particularly difficult ones at the beginning. The move from engineer to entrepreneur was challenging, especially as I had zero experience in business management. The other difficulty was quite unexpected – cultural shock. After living abroad and working in foreign companies for nearly 16 years, I was out of touch with the ‘real’ life in China.

Nonetheless, I was able to overcome those challenges pretty quickly and the company started to run smoothly from the second year. 

What would you have done differently, and what advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?

I started Feibo when I was 40, so not very young, but still the best decision I ever made (besides proposing to my better half 15 years ago). To young entrepreneurs, I would say pursue your dream with endurance, perseverance and enthusiasm. Planting your feet firmly while eying the future. Most importantly, don’t give up! When you feel frustrated, try to think back and find the very urge that pushed you into entrepreneurship. There is an old Chinese saying: ‘There are always more ways than obstacles.’ 

What are your ambitions for Feibo? 

I envision Feibo to become one of the leaders in the laser industry, not only in China but also in the world, achieving both financial and innovation success. EO