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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Alumni Leadership Groups to Add International Faces
International alumni will join two of the Alumni Association’s leadership groups next year after a March 5 decision by the board of directors to broaden geographic diversity. The board approved the addition of two international directors to its own ranks and the creation of an international-alum position on the National Selection Committee.
“More than 13 percent of…alumni are international residents,” said Association president Linda Sharpe ‘69. “Including them in the National Selection Committee and on the board…will greatly benefit the governance of the Association.”
The first international candidates, to be selected from among the 13,572 Institute alumni living outside the United States, will appear on the National Selection Committee ballot in 2006. At its spring 2006 meeting, the committee will select the board’s first international director for a two-year term beginning in July 2007. The second director will join the board in 2008.
Also at the March 5 meeting, the board reduced the number of domestic electoral districts from 11 to 10 to better balance their populations. The districts were last reviewed in 1987.
Meet the New Giving Website
The new giving to MIT website? Bold, visionary, provocative, yet pragmatic.
The new site provides a fresh spin on the gift-giving process by allowing alumni to easily search for giving opportunities and offering a quick way to check off interest areas.
Browse the site to learn about the core priorities of the Institute, to better understand the importance of annual giving, and to seek opportunities to make a major impact in one or more areas.
Find something you’re interested in? Start building an interest list with funding opportunities that make a difference to you. When you’re ready, you can make your gift online safely and easily.
Check out the new face of giving at web.mit.edu/giving/.
When Freezing Cold Is Not Cold Enough
Freezing cold is not cold enough for Professor Wolfgang Ketterle, one of the first observers of a new state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate and creator of the first atom laser. Ketterle, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics and corecipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics, described the properties and potential of ultracold matter during the 33rd annual Killian Faculty Achievement Award Lecture, March 15, in the Stata Center’s Kirsch Auditorium.
Ketterle shared the Nobel Prize with Eric A. Cornell, PhD ‘90, and Carl E. Wieman ‘73 for the development of novel cooling and storage methods that stabilize the atoms of Bose-Einstein condensates, which have temperatures of around one-millionth of a degree Kelvin, a million times colder than interstellar space. His current research is in atomic physics and laser spectroscopy, particularly laser cooling and trapping of atoms to explore new aspects of ultracold atomic matter. He is a member of MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronics and the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms.
MIT faculty colleagues named Ketterle the 2004-2005 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award winner in May 2004. The award was established in 1971 as a tribute to the Institute’s 10th president.