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GEOMAGIC INC. Headquarters: Research Triangle Park CEO: Ping Fu Employees: 93 Founded: 1996 Proj. '07 Revenue: $20 million Business: Software & Services

Ping Fu set out to answer an esoteric question from a colleague. She wound up creating — and then running — a company that expects to gross about $20 million this year. The question came more than a decade ago while she was director of visualization at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. “They wanted to know if it was possible to digitally compute space.”

That challenge, taken up by Fu and husband Herbert Edelsbrunner, then a computer-science professor at Illinois, has led to five patents and Geomagic Inc., which moved to Research Triangle Park in 1999. Using an optical scanner, Geomagic’s software creates exact three-dimensional images of objects. Automotive, aerospace and plastics companies rely on it for customization, quality control and modeling. Dental labs use it to make better-fitting crowns more quickly. Thanks largely to its dental segment, Geomagic posted a record 150% first-quarter revenue increase over the same period in 2006. Most of the money comes from software and services that support it.

Hearing-aid makers use it to shape their products, and one day it might be used to customize other consumer goods. Yet obstacles remain. Shoe stores, for example, would need expensive digital scanners to capture the contours of customers’ feet, says Cathy Hofknecht, director of marketing.

But Fu, 49, is used to overcoming obstacles. When she arrived in the U.S. in 1982, she spoke no English, had only $80 and had just been exiled from her native China for writing about the widespread killing of baby girls, a practice that resulted from her nation’s one-child-per-family policy (People, June 2006). She had planned to study languages at the University of New Mexico, but a man who offered to drive her from the airport to the university instead took her to a house with some other people. He left for several days and padlocked her and the others inside. They summoned help from a second-story window.

Fu later moved to the West Coast and earned a bachelor’s in computer science in 1986 from the University of California at San Diego. At the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, she initiated and managed the Mosaic software project that led to Web browsers Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer.

Building Geomagic hasn’t been easy. Fu and Edelsbrunner moved the company to RTP after Duke University hired him. Early on, it received $500,000 from Fu’s sister and brother-in-law and $1.5 million from angel investors, but a management team brought in to run it had no experience with startups. When she took over as CEO in 2000, there were 50 employees. Three months later, there were less than half that. Two years later, it was profitable.

Geomagic software helped Fu’s adopted country ensure the safe return of the space shuttle Discovery in August 2005 by capturing images of missing or damaged tiles and allowing them to be re-created and replaced in flight. Geomagic also helped digitize the Statue of Liberty. If it’s ever destroyed, it can be rebuilt to its exact specifications. “America is my new home. It’s the country of freedom, and to be able to be involved with the technology to protect that very symbol of freedom is absolutely exhilarating.”