If Peter Pan had been a technology whiz, he might have welcomed his lost boys to a home like Scott Jones's. The 2500-square-meter English country-style mansion has a 20-seat multimedia theater and touch-screen panels in each room that allow the air-conditioning, entertainment, and security systems to be operated from anywhere in the world via the Internet . The wine cellar has a fingerprint ID lock. And then there's the treehouse in the playroom, waterfall shower, 9500-liter aquarium, and the 8.5-meter-high spiral mahogany slide that runs from the main floor to the lower level.
The house mirrors the way Jones's mind works: practicality overlaid with creativity. He's able to indulge his love of gadgets and playful streak precisely because he's also a savvy businessman and inventor. Over the last 17 years, his ideas have brought him 14 current and pending patents and led to systems that now affect hundreds of millions of people each day.
It all started with voicemail. Back in the 1980s, Jones's first company, Boston Technology, revolutionized the modern workplace by creating a cheaper, more scalable model for leaving and retrieving telephone messages.
These days, he's diving into the home entertainment arena with his eight-year-old, privately held firm Escient Technologies (Indianapolis, Ind.). The company's products bring together traditional consumer electronics devices and the Internet, to let users easily organize and access video and music libraries. One product, Fireball, a US $1999 hard disk-based digital music management system with a TV hookup, has snagged seven awards, including top honors at last year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; it's since expanded into a line of products.
"The move in home entertainment is toward having a centrally located content server that records, stores, and distributes audio and video to various rooms in the house," says Matt Swanston, staff director at the Consumer Electronics Association (Arlington, Va.) "Escient was among the first to come out with this kind of product."
Jones has a larger goal, too: turning his home state of Indiana into a major high-tech hub. "People have this perception that it's either East or West Coast, with nothing in between," says Jones. But with good engineering schools and a lower cost of living, he argues, the Midwest is poised to become an entrepreneurial center [see "Scott Jones's Tips for a Successful Start-up,"].
As a child, Jones liked to tinker. One time his mother asked him to fix a jammed typewriter only to find its parts strewn across the kitchen table the next morning. He later enrolled at Indiana University, bent on becoming a physician. Then a senior-year computer course reawakened his tinkering instincts. "I set up a lab in the basement of the house where I was living, and set about educating myself in electrical engineering," he says. "I had no money for parts, so I put an ad in the paper, 'Poor starving student seeking electronics equipment,' and included my parents' address. Companies only too glad to unload old equipment would send truckloads of old computers there. My folks weren't too happy about that one, either."
Graduating in 1984 with a B.S. in computer science, Jones spent the next two years as a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Artificial Intelligence Lab. There he worked on projects ranging from robotics to optical storage to speech recognition. (One pet project was applying artificial intelligence to writing contracts, so as to "put lawyers out of business." It failed.)
Jones had taken the MIT job planning to either go on to his Ph.D. or start his own business. The latter path won out. In 1986, he joined forces with a buddy, Greg Carr, to co-found Boston Technology Inc. (Cambridge, Mass.). The breakup of AT&T two years earlier had opened the door to new products and services, and Jones and Carr hoped to grab a piece of the action. So while Carr identified areas ripe for opportunity, Jones figured out how to build the systems.
They soon settled on a novel voice-messaging scheme. Instead of relying on huge mainframes, their system would string together a hundred or more PCs via an Ethernet, with a telecommunications switch that routed calls to personal accounts. The configuration was both scalable and cost efficient.
With little money of their own, the young entrepreneurs took a gamble: they signed up for some $50 000 worth of credit cards, enough to cover the computer equipment needed for Jones to write the programming code and Carr to write the business plans. Their gamble paid off, and then some. Bell Atlantic, the Northeast's telephone company, became their first customer in 1988 and began offering the service to its phone customers.
Orders from other large customers followed—Southwestern Bell, BellSouth, Merrill Lynch. In 1998, Boston Technology was acquired by Comverse Technology Inc. (Woodbury, N.Y.) for $800 million. Jones's patents still fuel many of the company's products, which are used today by most telephone companies and more than 500 million people worldwide.