A Chinese-American scientist shaking up Silicon Valley
Physicist-turned-investor Zhang Shoucheng is betting big on virtual reality and helping Chinese firms invest in promising American start-ups
(From Caixin Online)
By staff reporter Liu Ran
Stanford University physics professor Zhang Shoucheng was gifted and determined from a young age. Born in 1963 in Shanghai on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political turmoil when universities were closed and lessons in schools were disrupted, Zhang taught himself science and mathematics from books he could find. When the chaos subsided and the university entrance exam resumed in 1977, he seized this opportunity and took the exam a year later. Zhang was 15 years old and had only completed junior high school when he qualified to enter Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the top schools in the country.
After a year at Fudan, Zhang won a government scholarship to study at the Free University in Berlin and then went on to get doctoral degree at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. Zhang joined the faculty at Stanford University, California in 1993 to teach physics after a stint at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose.
The 46-year-old scientist now wears many hats, as a researcher, entrepreneur and venture capitalist. “Human knowledge is like a tree and as civilization goes forward its branches grow in all directions, but the distances between branches also widen, making it difficult to cultivate a form of cross-disciplinary thinking instead of being limited to one silo of expertise,” says Zhang, explaining his motivation to cross-over from the research lab to the world of business.
As a physicist, Zhang is known for his studies on condensed matter and his pioneering work that helped discover a new class of materials, which can be used to design the next wave of computer chips. He recently led a team of researchers to design a tin alloy that has superconductor-like properties at room temperature. The discovery was named “stanene” combining the Latin name for tin – stannum – with the suffix used in grapheme, Zhang’s team said in a 2015 research paper published on the scientific journal Nature. It is part of a new class of materials known as topological insulators that Zhang has experimented with for several years. When this material is organized into a wafer-thin arrangement with the thickness of just one atom inside a semiconductor, it has the potential to increase the speed and efficiency of computer chips, while lowering the energy consumed by them, the paper said. Read more