Aural Laureate

Entrepreneur Scott Jones built a better voicemail system and now hopes to do the same for home entertainment

5 min read

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,"].


Vox redux

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.


You can go home again

Jones returned to Indianapolis in 1994 to be closer to his extended family and raise his three children. The sale of Boston Technology had made him a rich man, and a tired one. "I was completely over voicemail," he recalls. "I had several notebooks of unrelated ideas that I'd had to put on the back burner while building up my first company."

The following year, he co-founded Escient with Tom Doherty, a consumer electronics expert; Chris Commons, an inventor of music database systems; and Nora Doherty, who became the company's manager. Their goal was to develop easier ways to store and access music and video libraries, moving beyond the traditional formats of CDs, videotapes, and DVDs.

In designing Escient products, Jones drew inspiration from his MIT days, building into the music databases fuzzy logic algorithms (to match music content with CD cover art) and waveform recognition (to categorize the content of CDs and MP-3 files). He also took a page from's book. "Our systems have a feature called collaborative filtering that compares your song choices with those of more than a thousand other listeners with similar collections and then suggests new song titles, which can be sampled and purchased at various online sites," Jones explains.

The 100-worker company is divided into three branches (Escient, Gracenote, and PowerFile), each targeting a separate but related industry niche. Its PowerPlay system, for example, lets the user instantly sort, select, manage, and play hundreds of audio CDs and movie DVDs; it uses Gracenote's CD recognition software, PowerFile's disc transport system, and Escient's entertainment controller.

Escient also provides hardware, software, and services to the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Kenwood, and Thomson Multimedia. The technology is also finding takers outside the entertainment sphere: Heartlab Inc. (Westerley, R.I.) is building PowerFile's mass optical storage system into its cardiac imaging systems.

The strategy seems to be working. In January, Jones sold off the company's first profitable division, Escient Solutions, and he expects the other branches to turn profits by year's end.


Silicon Plains

Having launched two successful companies, Jones has received his share of accolades—from Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year to a listing in the 2001 People magazine's Most Eligible Bachelors issue. That listing prompted a flood of faxes, photos, e-mails, and even flowers from interested women. "Just let your readers know I'm in a committed relationship now," laughs Jones.

Meanwhile, his technological vision is finding other outlets. His house is one. Located in Carmel, north of Indianapolis, it's a living laboratory for Jones's more futuristic ideas. He's working on a "smart fridge" that tracks when he's running low on eggs or orange juice. In the driveway sits Digital Wheels, an old black Chevy van that Jones has souped up with an Ethernet hub, wireless Internet connection, MP-3 music server, and conference table.

Jones hopes to soup up the enthusiasm of local entrepreneurs, too. He sees Indiana becoming the Midwest's technological hub and tapping the genomics, nanotechnology, and information technology sectors. To that end, he established the Scott A. Jones Foundation to fund children's enrichment, technology-oriented education, and start-ups. He's also the main investor in Intech Park, a 16-building high-tech business center in Indianapolis, where Escient is headquartered.

"Indiana turns out to be a great place for technology development," he says. "It has some of the best science and engineering schools in the country, but has under-leveraged its resources for decades. With the help of many other forward-thinkers here, I'm trying to change that."

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