For Frank Pompei ‘72, SM ‘72, the spring day in 2002 when he proudly watched his son Joe’s doctoral hooding ceremony at MIT was doubly memorable. “That morning, I’d received my own PhD at the Harvard commencement, but in a torrential downpour,” Frank recalls with a smile. “I was soaked to the skin in full regalia, but what a fabulous day for our family.”
Frank and Joe Pompei operate in very different fields but have more in common than a name and matching ‘02 PhDs. Each is a successful inventor and innovator who built a flourishing business on his own terms.
Holder of 60 patents, Dr. Francesco Pompei is the founder and president of Exergen, a world leader in noninvasive thermography for people and industry. Exergen’s latest product is the Temporal Artery Scanner. “You can scan an infant’s forehead and get an accurate temperature in two seconds without disturbing or waking a child,” says Frank, who earned SB and SM mechanical-engineering degrees in 1972. “That’s a real blessing for parents and clinicians. For years, pediatricians called for something better than the ear thermometer, and here it is.”
Exergen sensors are also found in all sorts of production lines, giant commercial printing presses, race cars, and the fire safety systems in the Chunnel linking England and France. When Exergen moved into medical thermography, Frank needed to add an understanding of medical sciences to his engineering skills, so he earned a master’s, then a PhD, at Harvard University, all while continuing to run the company. He now holds an appointment to Harvard’s physics department as a research scholar focusing on cancer.
Dr. Joseph Pompei, while a student at MIT’s Media Lab, invented the Audio Spotlight, a breakthrough technology that allows directional control of sound. “Just as a beam of light can pinpoint a person’s face or widen to illuminate a large crowd, Audio Spotlight does that with soundand the quality of that sound is superb,” Joe says. He is president of Holosonics, which manufactures and installs Audio Spotlight for major corporations and venues.
“We’ve been successful selling directly to the professional market worldwide,” Joe says. Facilities that need sound without noise, such as museums, corporate visitor centers, and retail stores with audio-enabled displays, are primary customers. “Our ultimate destination for Audio Spotlight is the home. Imagine watching TV from your living-room sofa or your bed, while someone right beside you reads in peace and quiet.”
Joe became fascinated by the concept of placing sound as a 16-year-old engineer at Bose. Later, after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he earned his master’s at Northwestern studying psychoacoustics and signal processing.
“When I applied to doctoral programs, Nick Negroponte [then head of MIT’s Media Lab] ran my Audio Spotlight ideas by some heavy hitters. Everyone said, ‘Forget it, it won’t work.’ But Nick’s reaction was, ‘Hey, the kid’s enthusiastic. Let’s give it a shot.’
“The Media Lab gave me a small lab, smart people to talk to, great classes, and it all came together. Within a year, I had a working device. I started Holosonics in late 1999, and it was active by the time I graduated in 2002.
“My friends all thought I was crazy not to go the venture capital route with Audio Spotlight and cash in. But I wanted to create my own business selling a high-quality product at a fair price. I bootstrapped
the business 100 percent, starting with $2,000, and we got the product out. For me, it was the best way. My focus and the company’s focus stayed not on the investors but instead on the customers, where it really belongs.”
Going solo was a pivotal decision. “At the time, I wondered if going it alone was right for him,” says Frank. “He chose a longer, harder road than many MIT entrepreneurs. Yet now he has a viable business, full control, and the pleasure of building his business step by step. My role is to be a cheerleader for Joe. At a crucial juncture in my career, a respected mentor told me, ‘This industry needs a person like you.’ It made a huge difference.”
Joe has also learned from watching his father’s approach to building a business.
“Maybe that perspective helped me avoid some pitfalls that tripped up some of my friends,” Joe says. “Ultimately, the best thing that I learned from him was the true value of customers.
Having a product customers will want is the bottom line, Frank Pompei concludes. “So I ask lots of questions and listen for the subtext. More importantly, I watch how they do their job. I probe for the difficulties. Then I come up with something to solve their problem.”
Learn more about the Pompeis’ firms. Visit Exergen at www.exergen.com and Holosonics at www.holosonics.com.
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