Bill Liu with Steve Wozniak. Source: Royole Corp.
INTERNATIONAL - The idea came to him while lounging on the Stanford University lawn as an electrical engineering student: a flexible display that could be tucked away like a pen. 

“Big screens that we can roll up and put in our pocket,” said Bill Liu, 35, founder of Shenzhen, China-based Unicorn Royole Corporation. 

Liu has been chasing that dream ever since, and after demonstrating the world’s thinnest flexible, full-colour smartphone display in 2014, he now has a long list of venture capitalists backing him. 

Following a stint as a research scientist at International Business Machines in New York, Liu moved to Shenzhen and founded Royole , with two other engineers with Stanford backgrounds. 

Now in its sixth year, the start-up was valued at $5 billion (R70bn) in its latest Series E round of funding. Many of its 2 000 employees are working to mass produce the displays at a Shenzhen production campus built with Royole’s cache of VC money. 

Liu sees an opportunity to change one of the most fundamental human-machine interfaces of our time. By offering a solution to the conflict between visual experience and portability, he figures Royole can overhaul the devices by which most information is absorbed these days. 

“People really want to see beautiful, high-resolution big screens, which is why TVs and theatres keep getting bigger,” he said. 

“But it’s at conflict with portability. “If we can make something that combines both in one device, it can be amazing.” 

Company filings show Liu has about a 42 percent stake of the company, giving him a $2.1bn fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. 

Co-founders Peng Wei and Xiaojun Yu, who also studied at Stanford, have smaller stakes. 

Royole’s line of products include 3-D mobile theatres, “wearable” flex displays and a smart writing pad, which it sells on Amazon.com, JD.com and flagship stores in China, the US and Europe. 

But its main source of revenue is business-to-business sales of its technology solutions, such as a lamp by China’s Opple Lighting, which can be adjusted with touch technology built into the stand. 

Liu said he’s working on potential deals with smartphone makers and vehicle companies interested in Royole’s curved dashboard. 

A partnership with Chinese athletic goods maker Li-Ning is also in the works. Flexible displays including the curved design used by Samsung Electronics account for about a third of total smartphone display shipments, said Jerry Kang, an IHS Markit analyst. 

He said the technology will have a majority of the market by 2022, when shipments of smartphone displays are expected to have tripled. 

“Mobile brands will try to make their products with larger screens in a more convenient way,” he said. Royole’s investors include Knight Capital, IDG Capital and Poly Capital Management. 

– Bloomberg