Bending with the winds of 3D change
Innovator, technology entrepreneur, millionaire, author and child of the Cultural Revolution. There is much about Ping Fu to inspire business leaders. Matthew Hall caught up with her in New York.
There is no doubt Ping Fu is one of the most talked-about - and controversial - technology entrepreneurs of the year, even if it is only March. Her business credentials are fact. Ms Fu, a woman whose childhood was, as she recalls, snatched away by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, closed a deal in late February selling Geomagic, a 3D printing software company she co-founded in the US, for $55 million. The transaction also sees her become chief strategy officer for 3D Systems, the purchasing company.
Yet her memoir, Bend, Not Break, sparked frenzied debate around her account of life in China after it was published in the US earlier this year.
Released in Australia this month, the book tells of Ms Fu's childhood in the 1960s. In it she recalls how she was taken from her parents, forced to work in labour camps, made to eat dirt and watch executions. She also tells of becoming a mother to her younger sister when she herself was only 10, and of being gang-raped, and much later, deported. Her account was widely criticised in China and online, with Ms Fu facing denouncements in blogs, website comments, and in reviews for her book. Critics said she was a liar who fabricated her own - and China's - history.
But Ms Fu's extraordinary success in the US cannot be questioned, nor can her very real and significant contribution to technology.
Now 55, she arrived in San Francisco as a student from China in 1984 with just $US80 and a few words of English. She worked as a waitress, reportedly slapped Sylvester Stallone, studied computer programming, and climbed the academic research ladder to eventually lead the team that devised Mosaic - the web browser that became Netscape and opened up the internet to consumers.
In 1997, launching Geomagic with her then-husband Herbert Edelsbrunner, Ms Fu was at the forefront of the 3D printing industry. Geomagic's revolutionary scanning software has since been used to fix space shuttles, build new limbs for war veterans, and replicate the Statue of Liberty.
"When you start so low, you don't have anything to lose," Ms Fu said of the challenges facing immigrants. "You don't have a network; you don't know anyone; you don't know the culture; you possibly don't even know how to communicate properly. But anything you do improves your position.
"Immigrants are more motivated because most have to survive. Fear is a huge motivator."
Innovation has also been a motivator for Ms Fu. Visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York with IT Pro , she demonstrates how an iPhone app - Geomagic technology - can scan an oil painting and record every indentation and brush stroke to be replicated on a 3D printer.
She also shows off her now trademark red high-heel shoes, designed on Geomagic software and 3D "printed".
"The technology will allow you to capture [an object], repair it, and commercialise it," she explained, copyright issues aside.
Ms Fu believes that in five years 3D printing will be accessible to consumers, and in 10 years will be small enough and cheap enough for every home to have one.
Ms Fu has lived the entrepreneur dream - selling her latest company for millions of dollars, after a few well-documented failures - and is not shy in offering advice to budding businesses.
"Don't be afraid to fail," she said. "Know that in a start-up it
is about learning to walk. Every time you fail is the base for you to walk again."
Having successfully raised capital many times, she said potential investors wanted scalable ideas that have an in-built market entry barrier - something that stops it being copied. The most important feature of any venture, however, should be the creator's passion.
"I always ask the founder why they do what they do," she said, adding that belief in the people behind the idea can outweigh the idea itself.
"It is then about how your idea can translate into business."
Ms Fu acknowledges challenges women potentially face in the tech industry, but said she has tried to use her gender as an advantage.
"The role of women in tech is more complicated than just encouraging more girls into maths and science. [Usually] we always end up in Wall Street as analysts, not tech. I have a hard time to get them for my own business."