Tom Hsu, Ph.D.

Co-Founder


Picture

Curriculum Vitae

As a frequent public speaker I am often asked to describe myself. I am a teacher with a gift for understanding and explaining. I am also a creative entrepreneur with a deep commitment to responsible leadership. My professional life is a synthesis of these two traits with my love of science, engineering, and technology. Gifted teachers in my early years kindled my hunger for understanding and instilled an unshakable confidence that the world was comprehensible if you only spent enough time to learn.

Learning, however, is not enough. High school and college left me with an abiding conviction that knowledge and ability also convey responsibility. If I have a vision for something better, it is my responsibility to act on that vision. It may be a cliché, but America became great because people of vision and leadership acted instead of standing on the sidelines. At a graduation speech some years ago, the class speaker pointed out that a small fraction of people worldwide ever get to go to college and fewer than one in a hundred of those have the ability to lead and create change. Those who can have a moral obligation to do. I live those words. At Ergopedia, we have a shared vision for how to make education better so more students can reach a higher level of learning. We can, and we do.


Learning the value of leadership

My exposure to the value of leadership started early. As a child, I was a kid who was always making something. I remember at age eight building bicycles from parts that my brother and I scavenged from curbside junk. In high school, I was selected for an engineering co-op program. I spent five hours every day during my junior and senior years working as an engineer for Kodak. I worked in photographic paper and film manufacturing, contributing 13 technical papers in two years. I learned a great deal of engineering and also about management and organizations.

In 1978, our technicians routinely tested new shipments of raw materials and recorded the data in a logbook. I had an excellent computer teacher in high school and proposed the idea of a computerized system to track raw material data and correlate it with product quality. My mentor at Kodak saw the merit of the idea and procured a DEC PDP-8 and a terminal. I configured a system by wire-wrapping the backplane, as you did in those days. I wrote a database program that could print trend charts and showed it to the enthusiastic lab techs. The system ran well for several months. Alas, and to my chagrin, my mentor had not known of the existence of a “Minicomputer Committee” at Kodak. When this committee discovered my system, the technicians were instructed to go back to pencil and paper.

A few years later, while an undergraduate, I took a co-op position with Xerox. I worked on the first color copiers. In early designs, the heat required to fuse magenta, cyan, yellow, and black toner on paper often resulted in flaming copies arriving at the output tray. To remedy the situation, Xerox management paid millions to license technology from an overseas inventor. The new technology used smaller toner particles suspended in decane—also known as charcoal lighter fluid. The carrier solvent was burned in a catalytic converter generating heat to dry the copy. Xerox leadership missed the fact that burning hydrocarbons indoors was unwise. To save face, my group, one engineer and one technician, had the summer to find another solution. I got a patent application for a compact, refrigeration-based solvent recovery system for an office copier. My invention, however, was too energy intensive to be marketable. Xerox spent three more years trying to make liquid toner technology work, and others beat them to a practical color copier.

In 1978, Kodak and Xerox were world-class technology companies. They were my hometown's leading employers. Between 1980 and today those two companies laid off more than 50,000 workers in Rochester alone. They lost their positions of world leadership due to a complete and utter lack of vision from their own leadership. They spent so much time managing and looking inward that they failed to look forward. When I later had my own employees, I assembled an experienced board of directors and studied relentlessly to glean insight from case studies of successful and unsuccessful business leaders. While both are necessary, management and leadership are very different qualities. Leadership requires a clear vision of where you are going. I once read that “visions without actions make daydreams, actions without vision make nightmares.” I was 22-years-old when I left Xerox and I am grateful for deep lessons learned early in my career.


Nuclear fusion at MIT

In 1986, I entered graduate school at MIT to study nuclear fusion energy. This appealed to me as an ideal combination of challenging physics, cool engineering, and a worthwhile cause. The research was indeed challenging, and I was given extraordinary freedom to innovate. My research was to build a millimeter-wave system that would measure the temperature profile of the 85 million degree fusion plasma every 5 milliseconds. This was done with a very fast Michelson interferometer which I designed and constructed. The instrument used a counterbalanced crankshaft to drive a reciprocating mirror at 3,000 rpm, in vacuum, while keeping the moving mirror within quarter-wavelength of perfect parallelism and flatness. I designed and built a quasi-optical beam line to transport cyclotron radiation from the plasma to the interferometer. Five CNC-machined, hand-polished, off-axis parabolic mirrors created a millimeter-wave image of the plasma at the detector with very low signal loss.

As I had hoped, the science was fantastic, and the engineering was challenging. The late '80s was the era, however, when political will turned away from building real fusion experiments. The international fusion community embarked on a fifteen-year paper study of a next-generation fusion reactor that was never built. Fusion energy has been called the most difficult technical challenge humans have ever attempted: to confine and control the nuclear fire of a star in a magnetic bottle. In my opinion, fusion energy is a challenge the human race can and must solve—if not in my lifetime, then within my children's.


Better ways to teach physics

I decided to help the next generation of Americans to be smarter about science. Between 1988 and 1991, I taught high school physics and astronomy every morning at the Cambridge School of Weston, a small private school that truly focused on students and learning. In fact, a committee of students interviewed me for the job! I taught with a textbook for about six weeks before thinking of better ways for my students to learn. After teaching my high school class, I went back to MIT every day and my graduate student colleagues and I would talk about better ways to teach physics. We designed experiments and built them in MIT's hobby shop. I used them to teach my class. It wasn't long before my love of teaching drew me away from research. Even as I finished my dissertation, my heart had already left MIT to follow my passion for teaching.

The Cambridge School was an ideal place to develop as a teacher because there was faculty support and freedom to innovate. The experiments and lessons that became my first company, the Cambridge Physics Outlet, were developed and refined in my classroom at CSW. I started with 16 students the first year and by the time I left I was teaching 60 students in two sections. Nearly the entire senior class was electing to take physics.

The exhilaration of helping people learn has never left me. I still take every practical opportunity I can to be in a classroom. Whether teaching basic circuits to a fourth grade class, or Newton's laws to 30 teachers in a workshop, the personal fulfillment is the same.


After leaving the Cambridge School, I met with the principal of the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge. Rindge is the oldest public vocational school in America. I described my idea that vocational students could make physics experiments and then use them to learn physics themselves. In my proposed new hands-on science and engineering course, the carpentry students would make science equipment for all the science classes in Cambridge. The principal was enthusiastic and let me teach carpentry and physics at Rindge. This was the second phase of the Cambridge Physics Outlet, where we optimized our designs for manufacturability and usability in the crucible of a diverse urban school district. Rindge carpentry students built rollercoasters, physics stands, and marble launchers working from my blueprints. Over a few years, our durable physics equipment became part of every science classroom in Cambridge. Twenty years later, it is still used there today.



The Cambridge Physics Outlet

When my initial grant money expired, I approached several publishers about our hands-on physics program, but none were interested in anything that was more than books. Dr. Bruce Montgomery, a mentor at MIT, offered me encouragement and an initial investment. In 1994, the year I finished my Ph.D., the Cambridge Physics Outlet rented a 5,000 square foot building at #10 Green Street in Woburn, Massachusetts. We hired three of my former carpentry students and set up shop to make, market, and sell science equipment and publish our curriculum.


Four of the five original MIT grad students cleaning up CPO's first factory prior to setting up shop.

Gravity drops, cars, levers, physics stands, roller coasters, and ramps being packed for a customer order.

We designed six new products in 1996, including our unique Electric Motor.

CPO's VP of operations showing
off at one of the 20-odd trade
shows we did every year.

CPO's physics equipment was attractive, instantly recognizable, durable, and accurate.

Our booth collected crowds and our market presentation was always competitive with the big publishers.


I am quite proud of the fact that from the start, the Cambridge Physics Outlet was a manufacturer. We employed people to create lasting products of value from wood, metal, electronics, paper, and ink. We designed a technology-based, flexible manufacturing plant. We had a CNC milling machine for metal and a big CNC router that cut wood parts as fast as we could sell them. I learned all aspects of business, including accounting, marketing and sales, by actually doing these functions myself. Our hand-made trade-show booth was “best-in-show” at the ASCD national convention in its debut year because it spoke to teachers. Our beautiful wooden apparatus drew people in. How could physics be hard when it was a wooden car rolling down a ramp? People wanted to reach out and touch everything. In workshop after workshop, people who thought they couldn't—could! Our experiments were so well-designed that any student of even average ability could create a graph that would predict the speed of the car to 99% or better. This was physics that worked.


In the beginning, CPO's product strategy used existing catalog distribution channels to build market presence in the supplemental segment. The business plan then was to enter the much larger, more competitive basal segment with our own textbooks; we would give the equipment away free when sold in packages with the textbooks! The profit margin on textbooks is so large that giving away free equipment made a profitable business model that differentiated us from our competition. When I left the company, CPO was turning true net profits of 14% on sales of $9 million. Our first textbook won 36% of the market for Integrated Physics and Chemistry in Texas, one of the most competitive state adoptions in America. We built a reputation for quality that endures today. I take pride in the knowledge that 350,000 students get to do physics every day, across America, with tools and curriculum that I helped create.

I started CPO with $487,000 of angel capital. To create the first textbook, we needed more than our angels could contribute. As a result, I negotiated the sale of the company to Torstar in 2000, mostly in exchange for working capital. Between 2000 and 2003 we grew from a $1.6 million supplemental equipment maker to a $9 million basal publisher. Our staff grew from 11 to 45 people.

We were still the smallest company in Torstar's portfolio, however. When they hastily exited the education business in 2001, CPO was sold off with the rest. The years 2001-2002 were a difficult period. I was one of a three-person team managing Torstar's sale of Delta Education and CPO. I was also writing our first textbook and managing an extraordinary growth rate. I had hired an excellent management team, which was fortunate because CPO's revenues grew six-fold between January 2000 and December 2002. After CPO and Delta Education were acquired by the Wick's Group, I stayed on for a year and a half to see through the successful Texas adoption. I stepped down as president in 2003 to focus on curriculum development, writing two books, Foundations of Physics, and Physics, A First Course, which are still selling well.


Ergopedia

A second reason I left CPO was to explore further the use of animation and video in teaching science. One of my last projects at CPO had been the creation of a video training series that eventually won second place in a worldwide competition for educational programming. The technology of video and animation was maturing rapidly, and I foresaw that a single creative person could do what it once took whole studios to do. Manos Chaniotakis, a friend and colleague I've known since graduate school, was having similar ideas while teaching his classes at MIT. Manos and I started Ergopedia in 2004 with a grant from the US Department of Education to develop practical technology for education. I believe what we are doing today at Ergopedia, with a small but very talented group of people, will set the standard for tomorrow's curriculum.