Entrepreneur of the Year: Ping Fu
When Ping Fu looses a wholehearted smile it seems to rise from a place deeper than her heart, kindling her brown eyes, softening her face's seams and angles, and melting a decade off her age. Ping smiles now, but not with abandon. She looks her 47 years.
The team-building segment at the annual company meeting of Geomagic, Ping's software firm in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is not going well. The presenter has turned out to be a disappointment. Ping hired him to discuss results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, which 50 of her 70 employees have recently taken, but instead the man has burned an hour rehashing tired old management-guru dogma. Moreover, he has come on gratingly folksy, dropping his G's, making showy marks on the grease board, and concluding each point by demanding "Am I right?" in a not-quite-rhetorical fashion. Most annoyingly, he hasn't done his homework: He assumes he's the smartest person in the room, when the opposite is far more likely.
Over the past decade, Geomagic has defined and dominated the high-tech field of digital shape sampling and processing, or DSSP, which entails scanning an object with optical beams, then rendering it on a computer screen in full three-dimensional fidelity for manufacturing, testing, and inspection purposes. In the past five years, Geomagic's revenue has grown by 2,105%, to around $30 million a year.
DSSP technology holds so much promise because it is universally applicable; any object, animate or inanimate, natural or manmade, of any shape or size, still or, in some cases, moving, can be digitally processed. Within the past few years, DSSP--and Geomagic--has transformed the hearing aid and dental tech industries, helped digitally preserve the Statue of Liberty, streamlined the manufacturing process for Fisher-Price dollhouses, and recreated engine manifolds for a NASCAR racing team. Last summer, DSSP crossed into public consciousness by playing a key role in the perilous landing of the space shuttle Challenger; relying on Geomagic software, NASA engineers scanned and inspected the spacecraft's damaged shuttle tiles with a 10-foot-long robotic arm, and subsequently determined that they could safely withstand the stress of reentry into Earth's atmosphere.
While 2005 represented a breakout year for the company, an even brighter future beckons--and not just for Geomagic, but for manufacturing itself. By the end of the decade, three-dimensional DSSP technology promises to become as common as two-dimensional computer graphics are today. Ping's dream of mass customization, in which DSSP technology allows custom-made locally produced goods to be manufactured as cheaply as mass-produced outsourced ones, might come to pass.
Just now, however, Ping Fu must endure this seminar jockey's bushwa. Sitting at the front of the hotel conference room beside her husband, Herbert Edelsbrunner, the Duke University professor who developed the mathematical formulas behind Geomagic's software, she knows she is being watched. If she shows signs of boredom or impatience, her employees will do the same. Ping wants them to hold on until the presenter gets to Myers-Briggs. She knows the test will hook her people.
So, arranging her face in a small, attentive smile, and wearing a simple but elegant black dress with a yellow silk sash fastened loosely around the waist, she leans forward gracefully, templing her fingers at her chin, and listens to the man prattle. Indeed, Ping looks such the picture of poised corporate leadership that you assume she possesses an impeccable Asian American pedigree: Lowell High School in San Francisco, perhaps, followed by an undergraduate degree at UC-Berkeley and a Harvard M.B.A.
But, in fact, Ping attended no school at all between the ages of 7 and 18. Instead of San Francisco, Berkeley, and the Ivy League, she was educated through torture, exile, and imprisonment in her native China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. After living a 23-year nightmare in her homeland, Ping has been living a dream of equal length in America. Her odyssey from the old world to the new--from the bleakest totalitarianism to the most ebullient flowering of imagination and enterprise--forms a story worthy of a 21st-century Homer.
"Now I think y'all will agree with me that a person's gotta have meanin' in his life," the presenter goes on. "Everybody wants to live for somethin'--am I right?"
Edelsbrunner decides he has heard enough. "Not necessarily," he objects, speaking with the accent of his native Austria. "People often find the pursuit of meaning to be a burden. They prefer to live quite contentedly on a more superficial level."
"That's right!" a voice agrees from the back of the room. "Ignorance is bliss!"
The chorus is joined by four or five more Geomagic staffers. A mist of sweat rises on the good old boy's upper lip. His eyes dart around the room, finally coming to rest on Ping Fu.
The CEO retains her attentive smile, but makes no further move to save the man. Ping always encourages her employees to express their opinions. Given her past in China, it would be impossible for her to do otherwise. But by the same token, given her past, she cannot brook chaos. So, still smiling, she transmits a nonverbal message. To her employees: Let off some steam, but keep it in line. To the good old boy: Get to Myers-Briggs.
The two parties catch their respective beams. The presenter wipes off the grease board and draws the survey's four sensibility quadrants. The engineers, meanwhile, bring out their copies of the test. They do so eagerly, but somewhat sheepishly. Based on Jungian archetypes, and consisting of a short list of simple multiple-choice questions, the Myers-Briggs test seems as unscientific as a horoscope. And yet it proves uncannily accurate in defining a person's sensibility. In some ways the test resembles the workings of DSSP, projecting a near-perfect model of a complex, dynamic reality from fragmented shards of data.
"Who would like to share their results?" the presenter asks hopefully.
Ping raises her hand. "INTP," she says in a quiet, lightly accented voice.
The presenter beams. INTPs (people who, in Briggs-Myers parlance, tend toward introversion rather than extroversion, intuition rather than sensing, thinking rather than feeling, and perceiving rather than judging) seek to develop logical explanations for everything that interests them, he says. They are quiet, contained, flexible, and adaptable, and can focus in depth to solve problems in their area of interest. They are hungry to understand, control, predict, and explain.
"Scratch an INTP," the presenter concludes, "and you will find a scientist."
After a beat of impressed silence, he asks confidently, "Now, who wants to go next?" Forty hands shoot up, including that of Edelsbrunner. From within Ping Fu a true smile builds.
Rob Black operates out of an ordinary-looking cubicle at Geomagic headquarters in Research Triangle Park, an anomalous wedge of exurbia lying among the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, in the heart of North Carolina. RTP, as the area is locally known, is a place where high tech meets the traditional tobacco road, and gleaming business parks sprout among deep forests of loblolly pine. In 1998, Ping Fu chose to relocate here because Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Geomagic's birthplace, was so far removed from the tech boom's coastal capitals. At the time, in-demand programmers balked at moving to the Midwest cornfields, where, as Ping's former charge Mark Andreessen once complained, the odor of pig manure wafted through the halls of the University of Illinois's supercomputing center.
Black, a mechanical engineer, joined Geomagic in 1999, shortly after the move. He now serves as an account executive, demonstrating Geomagic Qualify and Geomagic Studio, the company's two core products, for customers.
"This is as accurate a model of that turbine as is humanly possible to render," Black says, nodding to the computer monitor in his cubicle, upon which the
3-D image of a component of a jet engine turbine slowly spins, in full color and precise scale, strikingly artful in its Andy Warhol-like artlessness. A few moments earlier, in an adjacent workroom, this image existed as a point cloud, a starburst of pixel light spilling across the black empty sky of another computer monitor. A laser scanner--a three-foot-long appendage-like device that resembles an X-ray machine at a hospital fracture clinic--shot out thousands of invisible beams, which struck the turbine at thousands of points over its variegated surface. The point cloud produced an impressionistic shadow image of the turbine; the turbine as if painted by Seurat.
Point clouds form a decisive step in the DSSP process, Black explains, and distinguish the technology from its cousin, computer-aided design and manufacturing, or CAD/CAM. In CAD/CAM, the designer creates the product, employing the software as a digitally enhanced pencil and drawing board. In DSSP, by contrast, the designer does not create. The image on the screen originates from the product itself, not the hand, brain, and eye of a human.
The next stage in the DSSP process is the creation of polygons. Thousands, multitudes, of tiny triangles form when Black clicks the mouse and each point in the cloud is instantly connected by a line to its two nearest neighbors. The triangles are then interconnected, forming a full-color second digital draft of the turbine.
The part spins on the screen in smooth, gleaming verisimilitude, accurate to within three-thousandths of a millimeter, ready for a range of design, manufacturing, and inspection applications.
The third phase of the process, and Geomagic's technological breakthrough, is the rapid creation of NURBS--non-uniform rational B-splines. NURBS create a smooth surface on the image, as if the object were perfectly shrink-wrapped. Before Geomagic, NURBS could not be created with a single click; it required a technique that tested the skills of topflight engineers and designers, working with the patience of monks copying illuminated manuscripts. Largely because of the laborious NURBS phase, it took a designer two full weeks to digitally process an object such as this turbine part. DSSP was too inconvenient and expensive to become standard practice in most industries.
But now, when Rob Black clicks the mouse, magic--or Geomagic--happens. A faint but furious humming issues from inside the processor. Black gives an expectant smile. He explains that this is the eighth edition of Geomagic Studio, which is used mainly for design and manufacturing purposes, and Qualify, which is principally used for inspection. Each new edition of the software represents a major improvement, closely connected to advances in the hardware. "When I first started here in '99 that scanner would have cost $200,000," Black says. "Today it costs $50,000, and it's 10 times more powerful and easier to use."
Ditto for processors, he adds. "Five years ago you needed a high-end engineering workstation to digest a good-sized point cloud. Right now, I'm running all this off my laptop."
And here it comes: Its NURBS automatically produced in less than three minutes, the part spins on the screen in smooth, gleaming verisimilitude, accurate to within three-thousandths of a millimeter, ready for a range of design, manufacturing, and inspection applications. The part can be virtually redesigned, for example, and the new version (or versions, any number of them) compared in function with the original. It's possible even to age the part, to see how it will perform during years of use.
The engineer gazes into the monitor to admire the virtual turbine, whose existence is all the more amazing because it is not his handiwork.
She hoped her death would be fast and painless. Given her countrymen's taste for torture, however, and her own agonizing past, Ping wasn't optimistic.
In February 1981, without a trial or even a formal charge, the Chinese government locked 23-year-old Ping Fu in solitary confinement, in a wing of Nanjing prison reserved for political criminals. There was neither heat nor a latrine in Ping's cell, but most dreadfully there was no light, natural or otherwise. Ping sat in utter darkness. She slumped against the wall and waited to die, wondering, almost dispassionately, about the means of her execution. She hoped it would be fast and painless. Given her countrymen's taste for torture, however, and her own agonizing past, Ping wasn't optimistic.
When Ping was 7 years old and her sister, Hong, 3, the two little girls were taken from their home in Shanghai and delivered to a dormitory for the children of so-called "capitalist-road" parents in Nanjing. It was 1965, the dawn of the Cultural Revolution.
Ping was forced to watch the Red Guard tie a kindergarten teacher to four horses. The Guard members--just teenagers themselves--then startled the horses. Ping was forced to watch another teacher be dropped head-first down a dry well. She watched the Red Guard scald her little sister with boiling water because one day Hong made too much noise as she played. Another day, the Red Guard threw Hong into a river for the fun of watching her drown. Ping jumped into the river and dragged her out. The enraged Guard members then beat the girls, and raped Ping. Now that Ping was an adult, and condemned as an enemy of the people, what hope did she have for a quick death?
As the dark hours bled out, Ping considered her "crime." Five years earlier, in 1976, Chairman Mao had died and the Cultural Revolution had come to an abrupt end. Schools and colleges opened for the first time in a decade. Ping entered the university in Suzhou. She hoped to study business or engineering, following in the footsteps of her engineer father and accountant mother, but the Party directed her to study English as a second language. Any sort of learning was a glory for Ping. She read Anna Karenina in translation and grew interested in journalism. A professor suggested that she go out to the provinces and research a rumored epidemic of infanticide. Ping accepted the assignment.
For two years she traveled through rural China, visiting hundreds of towns and villages, interviewing hospital staffers, barefoot doctors, and citizens. The national practice of killing infant girls had long been tacitly acknowledged, but never fully investigated. Ping proved an able reporter--curious, meticulous, resourceful, compassionate. There was no explaining or forgiving the crimes she documented and often witnessed. Because the state had ordered that parents were permitted only one child, however, and because tradition enforced an ironclad, son-centered patrimony, Ping did not judge her compatriots.
In 1980, she delivered her findings to her professor. A few months later, in January 1981, Shanghai's largest newspaper published a report based on Ping's research. The report was widely praised, although credit, of course, accrued to senior government officials. The story was subsequently published nationwide in People's Daily, then picked up by the international media. Which was when the trouble started.
The global community was outraged. The United Nations imposed sanctions on China. Earlier, when the report had been deemed a success, it had proved convenient for Chinese officials to overlook the contributions of the student who had gathered the data. Now that the report had provoked an international human rights scandal, however, it proved convenient for the government to identify and condemn the student, and to throw her into Nanjing prison.
After a seemingly endless period of isolation and darkness, Ping heard boots drumming the corridor outside her cell, the lock turning. She was led to a room where the light blinded her. Through dry lips she asked how long she'd been confined, and was amazed to learn that it was just three days. Ping was weak and disoriented. She assumed her execution was at hand. An official sat behind a desk.
"You must never say a word about your involvement in this project," the official told her. "You are forbidden to engage in any political activity. You will never return to China, but your family remains here. If in any way you disobey these instructions, your family will suffer the consequences. Have I made myself clear, Comrade?"
Ping nodded, although in her weakened state she did not immediately realize that, by some imponderable working of fate and political calculation, the government had decided not to execute her. Instead she was being deported to the United States.
Two weeks later, Ping boarded a United Airlines flight from Shanghai to San Francisco. She was being sent to the University of New Mexico--she didn't know why New Mexico, any more than she knew why she wasn't dead--to study English as a second language. Ping knew three shreds of English: please, thank you, and help. Officials had issued her the ticket to San Francisco, and $80 in traveler's checks to get her to Albuquerque. All Ping knew about America, meanwhile, was a hazy pastiche of Maoist propaganda and Chinese urban legend. The U.S. was a barbaric place where the rich lived in unconscionable luxury and the poor, who were legion, subsisted wretchedly. At the same time, from the fantasies of her childhood friends, Ping had learned that, in America, watermelons grew at your feet and bananas hung in profusion, low enough for easy picking.
Ping was assigned a window seat. She spent the 12-hour flight alternately staring out the window and pouring out her thoughts by scribbling notes on paper napkins. She didn't have writing paper and did not know how to ask for any. When the flight attendant offered her food or drink, Ping shook her head no, and pointed to the stack of cocktail napkins.
At the San Francisco airport, things started badly. The airfare to Albuquerque was $85. Ping was $5 short. But the stranger standing behind her in line heard her plight, and gave her the money. In America, it seemed, watermelons really did grow at your feet, and ripe bananas hung at arm's reach.
She pressed on to Albuquerque, where her luck again soured. There was no one waiting for her at the airport. She had no ride to the university, and no money to pay for one. The air outside the terminal was thin and dry and stung Ping's travel-swollen eyes. She sat down on her suitcase and waited. After a while a man approached. An Asian man. Ping watched him with combined wariness and hope. He turned out to be Vietnamese, but of Chinese origin, and he and Ping could communicate, though not well. Ping told her tale in brief. The man offered to drive her to the university.
Ping and the man didn't speak further. Instead of delivering Ping to the university, he drove to a small stucco house in a working-class neighborhood. The man took her inside, where she was faced with three small children, who looked up at her with the same commingled wariness and hope with which, a half hour earlier, Ping had regarded their father. She recalled her own exile, when she was the same age as these children.
The man left, while Ping watched in bewilderment. He padlocked the door from the outside. For three days--the same seemingly endless span of time she was locked away in prison--Ping stayed in the house with the three children. When the food ran out, she stood on a chair at a half-open window and screamed one of her three words of English: Help.
A neighbor heard and called the police. After much confusion and many tears the police sorted out the mess. They delivered Ping to the university.
That was the first and, thus far, the last terrible thing to happen to Ping Fu in America. At the university she quickly mastered English and excelled in her studies. Her teachers loved her, as did the restaurant owners for whom she waited tables and the homeowners for whom she scrubbed bathrooms. Ping was intelligent, serious, ferociously hard working and disciplined. But she was also, she understood, detached, somehow apart.
Ping had transferred to a master's program in comparative literature, but the market for such skills was discouraging. She had to find a way to earn a living. What could she do? Nothing--and everything. If her past in China had left aching gaps in her education and in her heart, it had also left her open to any possibility. Ping knew how to listen, think, and learn. She was a good writer with an exceptional ear for languages. Why not master another new language? she asked herself. Why not learn to write software? She switched programs yet again, and began to study computer science.
In 1997, Russ Emerick was diagnosed with a high-grade form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It meant enduring a harrowing course of chemotherapy, and it meant spending a great deal of time under the rays of a computer-aided tomography, or CAT, scanner.
Emerick lived in Amana, Iowa, and worked as a staff designer for Schneider Electric Corp.'s Square D brand, a leading manufacturer of circuit breakers. One day at the hospital, as he lay on the table that inched glacially into the CAT tube, his mind turned to the plastic molded cover for one of Square D's breakers.
That particular cover comprised 1,295 separate dimensions. In order to digitally inspect the device, engineers had to pass each of those dimensions through a laborious process that entailed converting the 3-D object to a 2-D digital graphic, then transferring it back to 3-D. The cost was $12.50 per dimension, and it took a highly skilled, well-paid designer three weeks to complete the inspection.
The table eased into the CAT tube. The X-rays probed Emerick's tissues and organs, simultaneously beaming them onto the radiologist's computer monitor in a precise, 3-D rendering.
We live in a 3-D world, Emerick reflected, but even a genius like Leonardo da Vinci drew in 2-D. The most sophisticated industries still hadn't progressed far beyond da Vinci. Why was it that a radiologist could use a scanner to sound the complexities of the human body, and Emerick couldn't use a similar process to inspect a plastic circuit-breaker cover?
The treatments succeeded. Emerick returned to work. But he remembered the question that came to him that day in the CAT tube, and began searching for effective 3-D inspection software. He found a number of products, but none had solved the fundamental problem of forging an accurate, efficient, affordable link between 2-D and 3-D. Finally, Emerick came across a small, two-year-old North Carolina-based outfit called Geomagic.
Geomagic, amazingly, had solved the problem. The company's software provided the missing link between the polygon and NURBS phases of the digital shaping and imaging process; instead of the 1,295 dimensions of the cover being inspected individually, they could now be processed all at once, and automatically. A Square D production worker could readily accomplish what used to be a major effort for a skilled designer. The three-week inspection process could be shrunk to just two days.
Besides offering a potentially industry-changing product, the company paid extraordinary attention to detail. In a similar vein, the company was unfailingly a pleasure to work with. Geomagic's service reps listened closely to Emerick's concerns, all the intricate, industry-specific issues, and responded in an almost intuitive way. It was as if someone from Geomagic had ridden into the CAT tube with Emerick, and been visited by the same thoughts.
Emerick knew that the style of a company, especially a smaller one, usually reflected the personality of its CEO. Geomagic's chief was someone named Ping Fu. Russ Emerick thought that he must be an exceptionally intelligent and insightful man.
One afternoon in the early fall of 1984, Ping walked the beach at Del Mar, Calif. She had arrived on the West Coast by an almost whimsical route. At the University of New Mexico, Ping had heard a professor muse that Asian graduate students, for all their achievement, rarely seemed to connect with American culture. The best way for them to learn about America, the professor suggested, was to enter a university as an undergraduate: Live in a dorm, eat greasy pizza in the dining hall, play foosball in the student union. Largely because of this offhand advice, Ping left the University of New Mexico without finishing her degree and enrolled at the University of California-San Diego--an undergraduate, this time, in computer sciences. She had come to the beach for a long, head-clearing walk.
After covering a mile or two she sat down on a driftwood log and looked out to sea. Lost in her thoughts, she didn't see the man approach. "Why so pensive, young lady?" he asked. They struck up a conversation. The man, whose name was Len Sherman, turned out to own a start-up software design company. Ping told him she was a programmer. Sherman hired Ping to write code on a part-time basis.
As a result of this quintessentially Californian encounter, Ping hit her stride in software design. As she designed a piece, she thought constantly about the needs and aptitude of the user. Her codes followed an organic, logical flow, forming a kind of narrative, and Sherman's customers loved them. In return, by working part-time at the beach, Ping earned a six-figure annual income. Sherman would go surfing while Ping worked up at his office, sitting at a computer monitor in front of the picture window.
Ping earned her baccalaureate and set course on another degree, a doctorate in computer sciences. She wanted to work for Bell Labs in Illinois, and continue her studies at the University of Illinois, which housed the federally funded National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Sherman begged her to stay in California. How could she leave the San Diego beaches for the gray Midwest? The two of them had a great thing going--they were making money by the bucketful. When Ping said sorry, she had made up her mind, Sherman offered her a 5% stake in his company. Ping turned it down.
Sherman looked at her closely. He planned to sell his company eventually; from that 5% stake, Ping could become a millionaire. Did she fully understand what she was giving up?
She did; or at least she thought she did. (And, in fact, six months after she left California, Sherman sold the company.) Money itself was of little interest to Ping. Thus far in the U.S., money had accrued to her almost by its own accord. She wanted something else. Exactly what she could not name, but that was part of America too. Perhaps the greatest part.
Ping moved in 1986 to Illinois, where she worked for four years at Bell Labs while beginning work on her Ph.D. Then, in keeping with her plan, she moved to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, or NCSA, and while there completed her doctorate. She immersed herself in the field of computer visualization, which was opening an exciting new playground on the border between science and art. Ping quickly demonstrated a gift for applications, for crystallizing arcane theory into a range of viable products. Among other projects, she helped design the software animation for the movie Terminator 2. She eventually took a full-time staff position at NCSA, a mecca for talented computer science students. One of them was Marc Andreessen, a tall, fair-haired sophomore whose disheveled appearance belied his fierce ambition.
She was Andreessen's boss as he developed the Mosaic Internet browser that blossomed into Netscape--she says she suggested that he work on a browser. Andreessen carried the browser away to Silicon Valley glory in 1993. The NCSA contended that it owned the rights to the work done in its laboratories, and sued Andreessen. After years of contentious litigation, NCSA came away with just $3 million from Netscape. Andreessen, of course, became a multimillionaire and appeared on the cover of Time.
Ping felt it was her destiny to create something of value. Why else would fate have commended her to such an unlikely pilgrimage?
The episode proved pivotal for Ping. Andreessen wasn't the computer scientist or software programmer that she was, but he possessed ruthless drive and laser-beam focus, and he had created a company--and an idea--of transformative value. Ping hardly wanted to become another Mark Andreessen, but she felt it was her destiny to create something of Netscape-like value. Why else would fate have commended her to such an unlikely pilgrimage?
In many respects, China had prepared Ping for America. It had taught her about work, and fearlessness. But China held her back, too. The Chinese character--especially the female Chinese character--was prone to reticence and a certain degree of submission. If Ping wanted to finish the job that fate had imposed, then she would have to suppress that side of her nature. Yet at the same time, she couldn't force or fake an Andreessen-like persona. Ping had to remain herself; or perhaps, she must finally become herself.
During her dozen years in the U.S., Ping had realized dreams beyond dreams, yet in a way she was less satisfied than on the day she'd first landed at San Francisco Airport. She still felt cut off, and not simply from life in America. She had told no one about her past in China, scenes from which still haunted her waking hours and revisited her in nightmares. She had made many friends in America, but no intimate ones, and had allowed no man to get close to her. Outwardly warm and exuberant, Ping felt frozen inside.
In 1993 Ping earned her U.S. citizenship and returned to China for the first time since her deportation. The worst of the totalitarian curse had lifted. Private enterprises were flourishing, many ordinary citizens were prospering. But behind the nation's glossy new surface, Ping wondered if anything fundamental had changed. She arrived in Nanjing to confront her mother and, ultimately, herself.
Back in 1958, when Ping was just 11 days old, her mother had sent her away to be raised by an aunt and uncle in Shanghai. They were a kind and loving couple. Her uncle had taught her a rule for money that she still lived by: Spend some, save some, invest some, give some away. The Great Famine of the early 1960s largely passed over her adoptive family, but not so the tempest of the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guard tore Ping away from her aunt and uncle and returned her to Nanjing, the place of her national registry. She arrived in the city just in time to watch her parents be hauled away to a re-education camp.
Through the ordeals of the next several years, Ping consoled herself with fantasies of her mother. She dreamed that her mother would comfort her when she returned home. She might not be able to explain the terrible things that had happened--what could possibly account for so much cruelty and pain?--but at least her mother could hold her.
In 1968, when Ping was 10, her mother was permitted to return to Nanjing. (Her father was retained in the camp.) The homecoming, however, was far from the tender reunion that Ping had fantasized. Rather than comfort her daughter, the woman, half-crazed by her own exile and suffering, persecuted her.
"She whipped and slapped me, she took my flesh between her fingers and pinched me," Ping recalls. It is the day after the team-training session and she sits at a conference table in her office. Earlier in the interview, while she recounted other traumatic experiences, Ping's eyes had glistened. But now she speaks with a measured calm.
"Intellectually, I understood," she goes on. "I understood that my mother was not herself, that her own misery was such that she had to lash out at me. I knew that in my head, but in my heart it was something different. I could forgive my mother for sending me away when I was a baby--she had a career, she never wanted to be a mother--but I could not forgive her for what happened when she came back from the camp. 'How could you have treated me this way?' I demanded of her."
Ping's family, instead of sympathizing with the abused child, scorned her for confronting her mother. Despite 50 years of Communist rule, a Confucian morality still held sway in the nation. Filial piety was the paramount rule. How could a daughter bring such grief to her mother?
"Everybody ganged up on me," Ping recalls. "And that was the last straw. Something broke inside me. For my whole life I had lived for others. Now I realized that something must change. I had done everything I could. Now it was time to move on."
So Ping went home to America. Destiny continued to tug at her and now, finally, she recognized its shape.
At the University of Illinois she had met a young professor named Herbert Edelsbrunner, an expert in the fields of algorithms and computational geometry, who in 1991 became the only computer scientist to win the prestigious Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation. One day, Edelsbrunner mentioned to Ping that he'd been invited to China to attend a conference. Ping told him the best places to find a working telephone in the country. When Edelsbrunner returned to the U.S., he took Ping out to lunch to thank her. They have been together since.
A short time after Ping and Herbert's marriage in 1991, a friend came to Ping with a problem: Was it possible to digitally compute spaces, as well as shapes and objects? Ping was intrigued. She recalled a Chinese proverb: A house is defined by walls and roofs, but in empty space do people live. But that was as far as she could get with the problem. So she took the riddle to her husband, who, it turned out, had already solved it. From those equations Ping conceived an application, a product, a story. Geomagic was born.
The Geomagic team-building session ends triumphantly. Employees chatter to each other about their personality types, and the presenter dishes out business cards while basking in the glow of the ovation that, 40 minutes ago, seemed so unlikely. Ping stands in a corner of the room, quietly savoring the moment. "I wanted people to take the test not because of some absolute truth it might reveal, but as a guideline for reducing conflicts," she explains. "If you know that the person working next to you has a different frame of reference, then you might not get so frustrated if you have a problem."
The care with which she planned the company meeting in general, and the Myers-Briggs test in particular, reflects Ping's recent commitment to honing her management skills. "After a decade, I feel like we've got our fundamentals in line," she says. "Our products, our markets, our research and development. Now it's time for me to get better at running the company."
In 1997, Ping left the NCSA to devote her energies to the start-up Geomagic. She borrowed $500,000 from her sister (who had followed Ping to America, and remained under her wing until her marriage to a successful businessman in Phoenix), then traveled to Chicago and wowed an audience of venture capitalists. They invested $1.5 million in Geomagic.
Still, the mechanics of running a company seemed daunting. That feeling is common among engineers and scientists founding start-ups and, like many technologists before and since, Ping hired an experienced chief executive. At the same time, she decided to relocate Geomagic near a university where her husband could teach and continue his research. (Edelsbrunner serves on Geomagic's board, and generates the mathematical theories driving the company's products, but is removed from day-to-day business.) Every major research school in the U.S. was eager to hire Edelsbrunner. He and Ping chose Duke.
In 1999, shortly after the move, Ping made a pitch to Franklin Street Partners, a group of RTP-area investors. "She came across as extremely intelligent and prepared, and communicated her vision of the company in a gripping manner," recalls Paul Rizzo, former vice chairman of the board at IBM and emeritus dean of the business school at the University of North Carolina, who was present at the meeting and now sits on Geomagic's board. "You could tell she had a strong intuitive sense about what she was doing. And the technology she was talking about was just so interesting that it seemed like it couldn't fail."
Franklin Street invested $6.5 million in the seemingly sure bet, and yet failure very nearly descended. The CEO that Ping had hired had an impressive track record at a large tech company, but had no experience with a small start-up. He spent most of Geomagic's capital and brought in virtually no revenue. His salespeople put up goose eggs.
"A slow start was pretty much in the cards," Rizzo points out. "Geomagic was introducing what amounted to a brand-new technology. They had to build a market at the same time that they were building a brand."
The second year turned out to be as dry as the first. By the end of 2000 the money was gone, the tech bubble had burst, and the company still had virtually zero revenue. Ping went to her Franklin Street investors and told them that she wanted to take the reins of the company. It was their money and her family's money that had disappeared, she said, and her employees whose futures were at risk.
Franklin Street agreed to Ping's emergency business plan, and she went to talk to her people. The CEO resigned and the salespeople left. (To pay their severance packages, she mortgaged her house.) She asked her remaining employees to give her three months to turn Geomagic around. If she failed, she would sell the company and try to help them all keep their jobs.
"I must admit I had my doubts," Rob Black recalls. "If it had been any other boss but Ping, I probably would have bailed. But she communicated such a sense of resolve that I just couldn't help believing in her. Thank goodness I decided to stay."
Ping went into survival mode, a state of mind and being she had developed all too well during her childhood in China. "All of my instincts kicked in," she says. "In a crisis mode, you lose all self-doubt--at least I do. I couldn't afford the luxury of doubt. I had too many people depending on me. I knew I had to make Geomagic's story so compelling that no potential customer could possibly turn me down."
Desperation turned out to be the mother of invention: Ping made a $1.8 million sale to Align Technology (in fairness, the former CEO had established the groundwork for the sale), and convinced customers in the dental tech industry that DSSP could deliver a new age of custom-fit crowns and implants. She decided not to assemble an in-house sales staff, relying instead on resellers, particularly laser-scanner and processor manufacturers. Within the promised three months, Ping had stabilized Geomagic, and within a year the company was showing a profit.
"Being so close to failure somehow gave me confidence," says Ping. "Everybody worked together, we reinforced each other. And the crisis committed me to running the company. The experience really opened my eyes about corporate governance. I learned that I must listen very carefully, gather all the information and advice that I can, but in the end I must make the decisions. I know I will make mistakes. But I also learned that, at times, it's more important to be clear than to be right."
The last few employees have cleared the conference room, their four-letter personality types echoing after them: INFP...ISTJ...ENTP... Watching them depart, Ping blooms with a smile that takes a long while to fade.
"If a product is made to order," says Ping, "by necessity it has to be manufactured close to the customer. What I'm suggesting is that globalization might be a passing phase."
"I think that if DSSP is developed to its full potential, then outsourcing manufacturing to other countries will no longer be necessary," she says. "Because if an American worker becomes 10 times more productive, which is possible through DSSP, then he can economically compete with a foreign worker. And if a product is made to order, by necessity it has to be manufactured close to the customer. What I'm suggesting is that globalization might be a passing phase."
These hopes are not modest, but consider the range of projects that Geomagic has contributed to. Among Geomagic's thousands of clients are, for example, NASCAR teams, which use DSSP to streamline the inspection and production of cylinder heads; and the Cleveland Clinic, which has used it to model and test a new artificial heart.
Then there is the Statue of Liberty. After the 9/11 attacks, the impregnability of American landmarks could no longer be assumed. If a terrorist attack or other catastrophe damaged Lady Liberty, officials would want to rebuild it with maximum fidelity to the original. But certain architectural details--the folds of her robe, the lift of her eyebrows--could not be recast from photographs. So a research team from Texas Tech University spent days laser-scanning the statue, accumulating a total of 16 million data points from which to build a digital model with Geomagic software.
But it is in bread-and-butter manufacturing that Geomagic truly shows its potential. American turbine companies, for instance, use DSSP to perform 100% digital inspection for new parts. In the dental industry, the technology has produced a new generation of implants--bridgework that actually fits. Ditto for hearing aids. Extrapolate as you like. Ping likes to imagine that each of us will soon be in possession of a DSSP model of our feet, and when we need new shoes, we'll transmit that model to a manufacturer, which will make shoes that fit like no off-the-shelf shoes can.
Common to these projects is quality custom work performed by American companies for a domestic market. By their very nature, none of these products could have been satisfactorily delivered by foreign competitors, especially the one that increasingly looms the largest: China. It's an important point with Ping. "I don't think having China manufacture all our goods and ship them back over here at a grotesque trade imbalance is a good model for anybody," she says.
"I really believe that this technology is important," Ping continues. "We are just on the edge of it now. I hoped that mass acceptance would have come already, but it takes time. I can honestly say that if in five years Geomagic is a highly profitable company, but the DSSP revolution has not arrived, then I would not consider myself a success. By the same token, if we sold the company to a buyer who understands our vision, and in five years the revolution takes place but Geomagic's contribution is forgotten, I would consider my work accomplished. I am not interested in wealth. I want to produce something of value."
And what is value? In the midst of Geomagic's darkest time, with the firm earning no revenue and Ping taking no compensation, she donated software and expertise to Seattle Limb Systems, a company fashioning high-tech prosthetics for victims of land mines in Cambodia. To heal others, she says, is to heal herself.
It has grown late in Research Triangle Park. Outside the hotel, the traffic is bumper-to-bumper on the road to Raleigh, and the sky is darkening over the sandy forests. Ping Fu hurries away to meet her husband, who has gone to pick up the couple's 11-year-old daughter. The girl, named XiXi, has just started sixth grade, and her mother is hungry to hear about her day.
John Brant wrote about Bill Strickland for the September issue.