'Science geek' breaks monopoly of foreign instrument producers

Yang Jian
Shanghai-based Fermi Instruments has developed many of the world's top experimental instruments that were once monopolized by foreign companies.
Yang Jian
Science geek breaks monopoly of foreign instrument producers
Ti Gong

Zhao Jiafeng, the founder and president of Fermi Instruments, works in a lab in his company.

Scientific research, often involving repeated experiments, can be boring but Zhao Jiafeng, the founder of Fermi Instruments, and his colleagues have made their lab a playground.

Irritated by arrogant, monopolistic foreign suppliers, Zhao, a physics PhD at Fudan University, decided to produce high-tech apparatuses for scientific experiments on his own.

He quit his lucrative job in Silicon Valley and founded Fermi Instruments with two of his like-minded classmates in 2012.

The scientific start-up based at the Shanghai Robotics Industry Park in north Baoshan District has become a leading tech firm with multiple patents and core technologies and China’s full intellectual property rights.

Some of its key products, such as the cryogenic manipulator, an essential instrument for various scientific experiments, have not only broken the monopoly of overseas producers, but been exported across the world thanks to their high quality.

Their products based on vacuum, cryogenics, thin film and plasma technologies can be widely applied in the production of China’s semiconductors, chips, quantum communication and other high-tech products.

“Just like soldiers are longing for battles, we scientists are eager to serve the homeland with new scientific achievements,” said Zhao, 39, the chairman of Fermi.

Though many of Fermi’s products have reached the world’s top standards in the last nine years, Zhao said he always regarded the company as a new start-up firm.

“We must keep the endless curiosity to explore the future,” said Zhao. “Most of our achievements were made to satisfy our curiosity."

Science geek breaks monopoly of foreign instrument producers
Ti Gong

Zhao Jiafeng introduces his company's products to clients.

The company’s cryogenic manipulators, one of its key products, can cool experimental samples to near minus 273 degrees, known as the Absolute Zero, while acting freely. Zhao led his team through hundreds of experiments to find the most suitable alloys that can effectively reduce the loss of heat.

The product has changed the empirical formula concluded by an American company that once monopolized the sector for decades.

Due to its superior quality, the product has been sold to over 60 clients, including many of the world’s leading universities, such as the US Boston College, Seoul National University and National University of Singapore.

Thanks to Fermi, foreign suppliers now dare not offer unreasonably high prices to Chinese buyers.

“Only when you are strong enough, your competitors will respect you,” Zhao said.

“I want to thank our competitors from abroad. They made us to stick to the path of independent research and development."

Before graduating from Fudan in 2009, Zhao and his classmates had to purchase expensive experimental instruments from overseas suppliers. They often were expensive and had poor after-sales services because of their monopoly status.

They once spent over a million yuan to buy an ultraviolet radiator from a Swedish company. The product malfunctioned after only several months, but the supplier refused to repair it. It blamed the lab’s poor environment or wrong use.

The young scientists then dismantled the radiator and fixed it for only 6,000 yuan. The Sweden company later came to Zhou to ask how he solved the problem after multiple clients reported the same issue.

“I realized we Chinese scientists have the capability to do better than our overseas counterparts,” Zhou said. 

Previously, they dared not to even remove a screw on any imported instruments due to the high cost.

Science geek breaks monopoly of foreign instrument producers
Ti Gong

Zhao Jiafeng talks with customers.

Zhao and his partners' first product, an ultraviolet radiator, was of better quality than imported ones.

They then began researching the cryogenic manipulator, since domestic scientists often had to purchase liquid nitrogen from abroad to carry out various experiments.

“We came up with the idea for the first time to establish an instrument company to produce cheap but quality apparatuses for Chinese scientists,” Zhao recalled.

At the beginning they were hampered by a lack of funds.

Zhao was recruited by Thermo Fisher Scientific, the world’s top instrument company, and renowned semiconductor producer KLA-Tencor, for product development and marketing.

“I’ve learnt a lot about company management and communication skills through the experience,” Zhao said.

Amid China’s mass entrepreneurship and innovation campaign, Zhao quit the job and rented a small office in Yangpu’s Wujiaochang area in 2012 for the newly-established Fermi.

Li Jing, the president office director of Fermi and one of the first employees, recalled the first office only had a desk that was shared by Zhao and his partner.

“They never thought of abandoning the dream no matter how difficult it was,” Li said. “These science geeks are stubborn sometimes — they never give up."

Zhao led the company to several entrepreneurship competitions where his talent was noticed by both investors and the government.

Supported by the Baoshan Science and Technology Commission, Fermi moved to a 230-square-meter office in Gaojing Town near Fudan with several rounds of subsidies. The commission later supported the company to move to their current site, a three-story building with multiple labs and offices.

“The recognition from the government is more important to us than investments,” Li said.

Science geek breaks monopoly of foreign instrument producers
Ti Gong

Zhao Jiafeng.

In 2018, President Xi Jinping saw one of Fermi’s products at an exhibition in Beijing. Xi praised the independent research and innovation of the company.

The company has been listed as a leading “small- and medium-size high tech firm” of Shanghai in 2019 as well as one of the city’s “Scientific Giant” company in 2020.

Zhou himself has developed over 20 patents and four innovative inventions. He was titled Baoshan’s “chief technological professional.”

Nowadays, Fermi has expanded its business from precise lab instruments to industrial products that can be mass produced. Based on its plasma technology, for instance, the company has developed an air purifier that can effectively reduce fine particles and kill virus, including COVID-19.

The company’s employees no longer need to wear masks inside the building due to the purifier.

Fermi has about 170 employees, mainly researchers and engineers around 30 years old. The team has a dozen employees with PhD degrees and 13 with master degrees in physics and chemistry.

Few young employees leave from Fermi. Zhou said he aims to create a comfortable environment for young scientists to carry out research.

“Many of my colleagues feel proud to be able to contribute to China’s scientific development,” he said.

Science geek breaks monopoly of foreign instrument producers
Ti Gong

The Shanghai University-Rim Industrial Park in Baoshan.

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