Tech firm's IPO turns former NTU professor into billionaire

Nanofilm founder and executive chairman Shi Xu has reportedly seen his fortune surge to almost US$880 million (S$1.2 billion).
Nanofilm founder and executive chairman Shi Xu has reportedly seen his fortune surge to almost US$880 million (S$1.2 billion).

Dr Shi Xu once said that financial stability and job security were the two dreams he and his wife had when they moved to Singapore from China in the early 1990s.

After almost three decades, they have become billionaires with the listing of their company, Nanofilm Technologies International.

The provider of nanotechnology solutions for smartphones and other electronics ended 12.4 per cent up at $2.91, from its initial public offering (IPO) price of $2.59, in its trading debut yesterday.

Dr Shi's fortune, mainly made up of the 53 per cent Nanofilm stake he holds with his wife, has surged to almost US$880 million (S$1.2 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The company declined to comment on the couple's wealth.

The IPO raised over $470 million, taking the firm's market value to $1.9 billion and marking the largest primary listing on the Singapore Exchange (SGX) since 2017, excluding real estate investment trusts for which the city state is a global hub.

"Nanofilm is a rare technology manufacturing IPO on the SGX in recent years, bringing a fresh perspective for local investors," said Ms Margaret Yang, a strategist at DailyFX.

With computers and wearable devices its main revenue drivers and more than 70 per cent of sales coming from China, the company is set to benefit from the growing demand for digital devices amid Covid-19, she said. "It may attract other locally incubated tech firms to consider listing at home."

Dr Shi, 56, founded Nanofilm in 1999 with US$300,000. It started as a tech start-up spun off from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) - where he worked as an associate professor - after Hitachi sought to adopt his coating technology to its hard-disk drives.

When NTU decided to create a company to commercialise the technology, the school asked him to lead it. Dr Shi said in an interview with a local magazine in 2018 that he was "'forced' to go into business" and initially negotiated to take no-pay leave from the university for two years as a backup plan.

Now Nanofilm has more than 1,400 employees in offices in Singapore, Japan, China and Vietnam. Its revenue climbed more than 40 per cent in the first half of the year, after growing 16 per cent last year.

While the firm's main customers include Fuji Xerox, Microsoft and Huawei Technologies, it noted that the reliance on its largest client, a tech company it did not identify, could be a risk factor - this tech company generated more than half of Nanofilm's sales last year.

The offering's 13 cornerstone investors include Aberdeen Standard Investments (Asia), Credit Suisse, JPMorgan Asset Management (Singapore) and Venezio Investments, a wholly owned subsidiary of investment firm Temasek.

Temasek itself will become a substantial shareholder following the listing and sale of cornerstone shares.

Dr Shi, who is executive chairman of Nanofilm, has no regrets about leaving the academic life, which his wife, Ms Jin Xiao Qun, viewed as an "iron rice bowl" - or stable job, as per a Chinese saying. She is the company's assistant vice-president.

"Business is so much more challenging, compared with teaching," Dr Shi told The Peak magazine in 2018. "If you asked me to go back, I might feel bored."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2020, with the headline 'Tech firm's IPO turns former NTU professor into billionaire'. Print Edition | Subscribe