The people on Scott Jones' Christmas card list got much more than the traditional message of peace, joy and good will for 2006. Into each season's greeting Jones placed Thomas Friedman's best-seller, The World Is Flat. The book is an intriguing blend of economic prophecy (the digital revolution belongs to the basement entrepreneur) and cautionary tale (if we don't watch it, the United States will fall behind countries with better educational systems).
The message so resonated with Jones that he had to share it with 275 of his closest friends. It's a message he hopes will jolt politicians into action to reassert U.S. leadership in math, science and engineering--the fields that drive the economy.
"We're not a stand-alone country," says Jones, a 45-year-old businessman best known as the inventor of voice mail. "China and India and places like Brazil are coming online and taking some of those jobs that have existed here for the last century. We may be coming into a new era of world growth and expansion when the United States isn't necessarily leading. An important message that I took away from this is: We're falling behind in the area of science and engineering. We're probably falling behind in inventions as well."
Jones, the holder of a dozen patents, is the kind of entrepreneur Friedman lifts up as the model in a globally connected world. Jones lives in Carmel, Indiana, but can do business with any place, from just about anywhere. Like Friedman, Jones sees the world as flat: so connected by technology that traditional geographic and political barriers no longer matter.
Born in 1960, Jones knew early on that he would pursue a life of scientific inquiry. He was fascinated by gadgets, electricity and the stories of famous inventors like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. As a seven-year-old, Jones fiddled with his father's electric train set and regularly got shocked in the process. As a teen, his idea of fun was a trip to Radio Shack.
"I have several memories of making messes." he says, recalling one in particular when he disassembled his journalist mother's Selectric typewriter. "She said something wasn't working quite right, either the return key or the space bar or something. Electrics are pretty complicated. She told me that, then she went to bed. I ripped the whole thing apart into single, individual pieces of which there were hundreds. And it was all spread out on the kitchen table when she got up in the morning. She was furious at me because that was her livelihood. I then put it back together again."
Thank goodness, it worked.
After graduating with honors from Indiana University with a degree in computer science, Jones got a job as a research scientist at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Boston. There he got to dabble in robotics, vision systems, optical storage, parallel computing, the Internet and what he calls "bleeding-edge" technologies.
In 1986, Jones cofounded his first company, Boston Technology, Inc., where he created the voice mail system used today by some 500 million people. Jones is quick to point out that he didn't invent voice mail. Someone by the name of Gordon Matthews did that, and "he's referenced in my patents."
An analogy is the automobile. "The car was invented in the late 1800s by a few different people at a similar time, but it wasn't until Henry Ford came out with a version that was economically viable that it really took off," Jones says, "So that's what I did. I created the economically viable version of voice mail that is in the telephone companies and can scale up to handle millions of users."
After returning to Indiana, Jones founded Escient Technologies, which developed products that performed data storage, music management and similar tasks that integrated home entertainment and the Internet. Then, he moved into an even more novel arena: robotics. One of his newer ventures, Indy Robotics, is comprised of engineers, software developers and marketing professionals. …