China's Rainbowfish opening new frontiers: 11,000m down

Xin Wu, founder and president of Rainbowfish, shared his vision of the future.

Xin Wu, founder and president of Rainbowfish, says his company aims to reach the deepest place on Earth — the Challenger Deep valley at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 11,000 meters down — by 2020. A submersible will carry a scientist, an entrepreneur and an oceanaut on the mission.

HOUSED in a five-story building in the high-tech park at the Shanghai Ocean University in Nanhui New Town, Pudong, Rainbowfish Ocean Technology Co. Ltd is not so accessible.

The nearby pavements are encroached upon by luxuriant goldenrods, an invading plant from North America. The pervading quiet is only broken by rumbling trucks loaded with dirt from a nearby construction site. But it is well-situated close to the sea, and the research-business entity is directing our attention to a part of Earth a typical urbanite would not normally notice: the deep sea.

According to its ambitious plan, the company aims to reach the deepest place on Earth — the Challenger Deep valley at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 11,000 meters down — by 2020. A submersible will carry a scientist, an entrepreneur and an oceanaut on the mission.

It will not be easy. The deepest reaches of the sea really are akin to another planet, subject to conditions unimaginable on the Earth’s surface: crushing pressure, deep cold, and eternal darkness rule the world’s basement.

But Rainbowfish is going well. Last December an unmanned submersible succeeded in reaching the target depth, in the extreme area of the hadal zone — the deepest trenches in the oceans.

And the company is getting further encouragement from President Xi Jinping’s speech at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which reiterated China’s determination to become an ocean power, and to create incentives for social enterprises to engage in innovation.

In a recent interview with Shanghai Daily, Xin Wu, founder and president of Rainbowfish, shared his vision of the future. He said Rainbowfish is cashing in on the national support for emerging marine industries, which include marine engineering and equipment building, marine ecology, pharmaceuticals, and tourism.

State support

“This is a strategy obviously born of careful consideration, and as an enterprise we are riding on the momentum of this national drive,” Wu said. The brief history of Rainbowfish shows how private investment is playing a vital role in R&D in China.

Rainbowfish was launched in April 2014 to engage in research in deep sea technologies and turn its findings into commercial use. It became a publicly listed company in December 2015. After two rounds of capital-raising, it has raised about 130 million yuan (US$19.6 million) and is now valued at 1.5 billion yuan.

When asked about the key to its success, Wu said it is about the mode of development. The company thrives on the combination of scientists and entrepreneurs — raising private investment while enjoying state support. “To all appearances the ocean seems to evoke our fondest imagination, while in actual fact, for us as an industry, it is investment intensive, and highly risky,” Wu said, adding that he had been dragged into the business by the “crazy” scientist, Cui Weicheng.

Cui is one of China’s ten leading scientists who have made significant impacts in their respective fields, according to Nature magazine in 2016. The noted scientist is now leading the research arm of the company in building a more pressure-resistant, three-person submersible Rainbowfish, due to be operational by 2020.

A few years ago Cui, then the deputy chief designer of the manned submersible Jiaolong, was celebrated as a national hero when he became one of eight crew members to dive down to 7,060 meters. He met Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

But Cui then called it quits, leaving the prestigious China Ship Scientific Research Center, the promising Jiaolong project, and all the perks he enjoyed as a titled scientist in a state-owned institute, and turned to his attention to the development of Rainbowfish. Then Wu jumped on board, and became responsible for the business arm of the company.

Wu admitted state support is still important — for example, the company is using its premises rent-free for the first three years. They also enjoyed favorable policies in recruiting talents. And if they are identified as a high-tech company next year, they might enjoy preferential tax policies.

“We also developed cooperative relations with over 20 colleges,” Wu said. “They have a certain amount of research funds, and they can use our facilities to conduct research. It’s an extension of the sharing concept.”

Commercial opportunity

Wu sees big data and (tourist) diving as the two most promising commercial uses of the company’s core technology. A big data center is set to be headquartered in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

“Big data might be more profitable in the short-term, given its combination with the Internet, while diving as a marketable experience will take longer since manufacturing of the necessary equipment is investment-intensive, particularly at the early stage,” Wu said.

The company is also winning contracts from home and abroad to monitor the fragile ecosystems undersea.

It seems that Rainbowfish is not only exploring the deep sea frontier. It is also testing the depth of partnerships in pushing cutting-edge research, a move aligned with the state mandate to further reform the science and research system.

Rainbowfish is working towards building a partnership that is dominated by enterprises and market-oriented, and setting up a technological and innovation system marked by deep integration between industrial research and application.

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