Never give up

Scott Jones doesn't let past misses impede future hits.

By Julie Sloane, FSB contributor

(FSB Magazine) Indianapolis -- Undeterred by the failure of Escient, in 2005 Jones sponsored a team to compete in the second DARPA Grand Challenge (darpa.mil/grandchallenge), a competition to create and race an unmanned vehicle for a $2 million prize and the prospect of lucrative military contracts. Because of a small technical glitch, the $400,000 robot peeled out at the starting line, veered right, and crashed into a wall. Jones, however, encourages his employees to take ideas and turn them inside out until they make sense as a business.

He ended up building a company out of his robot technology, but not quite the one he imagined. The late management sage Peter Drucker said that innovation often occurs when an entrepreneur takes an idea in an entirely new direction. And that's what Jones did with Precise Path, which is developing robotic lawn mowers that will neatly mow golf course greens.

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Movie magic: Jones gets inspiration from watching flicks in his 20-seat home theater.

In the garage of a small Colonial house on Jones's estate, Doug Traster, formerly the leader of Jones's Indy Robot Racing Team and now president of Precise Path, points to several color 3-D schematics taped to the wall, which show the evolution of the idea. After deciding an unmanned Jeep posed too many liability issues, the team considered robotic chemical sprayers that would protect workers from inhaling chemicals. "The demand wasn't there," says Traster.

Innovate Like Edison

They considered a lawn mower, dubbed "the purple lozenge" for its size and shape. But the technology was too expensive for the consumer market. The team then pitched fairway mowers to golf course managers, but they all said what they really needed was a better mower for putting greens. Traditional mowers create small imperfections that disrupt the speed and uniformity of the green. That's when Traster decided to manufacture robotic mowers that promise much smoother greens. Production is planned for 2009, and Jones says the company already has a $200,000 order from a distributor for ten of the machines.

Driving home from dinner one evening in his Lexus LX-470, Jones makes a bold statement. "I already know where I'm spending my next $4 billion to $6 billion." He says it so casually, as if he weren't talking about a sum more than 25 times his net worth. Where will he spend part of that? "Many entrepreneurs have had the dream of being able to fly," he continues. "I think I actually know how to do it in a way that's new and different, that would largely eliminate the need for cars. I just need $2 billion to prove it."

The beauty of it is, he's not particularly bothered that no one will believe him. Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.