Lured by the promise of government-backed capital to start a new company, Shi returned to China in 2000.
He wrote a 200-page business plan in a week's time.
"I had never written a business plan, I was so impressed with myself," he said in 2010.
He got $6 million from companies controlled by the Wuxi government, giving them 75 per cent of the company.
Shi kicked in $400000 - mainly from other Chinese backers, according to ex-colleagues - and Suntech was born.
With governments around the world alarmed by the prospect of global warming, renewable energy was heating up - solar in particular.
Demand from Europe soared on the back of luxuriant subsidies, and Suntech's sales and profits began to rise.
Shi openly acknowledges the local party secretary in Wuxi, Yang Weize, always had his back. Yang helped Suntech secure loans from state-owned banks to expand production as demand increased, according to people familiar with the matter.
At the 2010 speech in Sydney, Shi called Yang one of his "saviors", noting he was likely to be "promoted very soon". He was right.
Three months later, Yang became the party secretary of Nanjing, the provincial capital of Jiangsu.
Yang and Wang were unavailable for comment.
From the government's standpoint, Suntech provided jobs for the local population, tax revenue for the local government - key metrics by which the Party evaluates local officials in China -and raised billions of dollars from local banks.
In the mid-2000s, Shi got into a dispute over Suntech's strategy with some of the board members who represented government-owned companies with founding stakes in Suntech. The city's top local officials backed Shi. Just before Suntech went public in New York, he bought the stakes of the other founding shareholders.
From that moment on, Shi later told an interviewer, "I felt free."
For a time everyone was happy. In December of 2005, Suntech became the first privately-owned company from China to list on the New York Stock Exchange, raising $400 million in equity. In 2006, Central China Television named Shi "entrepreneur of the year," and flew in Professor Green to present his student with the award.
By 2009, Suntech had become the world's largest solar-panel maker, with annual capacity of 1,000 megawatts (MW), enough to power one million US homes. Various celebrities came to pay homage to Shi, including former US vice president, Nobel Prize winner and climate-change evangelist Al Gore.
Some former colleagues believe the attention went to Shi's head - that with the government's backing he thought he could do no wrong. Samuel Yang was involved in Suntech's start-up and is now chief executive officer of solar-panel maker Haeron Solar (600401.SS).
"Dr Shi," he told Reuters, "was flattered to destruction. He's a scientist, not an entrepreneur."