As a child, Dung Duong fled a third world country, lived in refugee camps, was jailed, and found himself homeless before immigrating to the United States. A strong student and gifted engineer, he eventually found success as an entrepreneur and investor. In his new book, Shifting Optics, Dung shares his stories through his recollections and a desire to make the world a better place. Told with a wink and a smile, he offers up his life story to show there’s always light in the darkness. There’s always a tomorrow and there’s always a way to move forward and improve the world in our own unique way.
Drew Applebaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Dung Duong, author of Shifting Optics. Dung, I’m excited you’re here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.
Dung Duong: Thank you.
Drew Applebaum: Can you kick us off and tell us a little bit about your professional background?
Dung Duong: I graduated with two degrees, one in optics and another one in civil engineering. There’s this whole story about why I went down the two-degrees-path, but I won’t bore you there. During my entire professional career, I have been dealing with optics and mechanical systems. I spent my first two years trying to get an understanding of the fundamentals behind optics and mechanicals. I quite quickly became a principal engineer at a company called Applied Science Fiction. From that, I built a pretty good core foundation of understanding engineering in general but specifically optics mechanical systems, and particularly optics. I have used that to really help me throughout my career. I’m a fundamentalist, as far as it comes to engineering. I really try to get everything back down to foundational, fundamental sorts of principles.
That’s really allowed me to come up with pretty innovative ideas throughout my career. Starting back from the Applied Science Fiction days to LTN, Luminex, to starting my own company, Illumitex. And helping with Blooming, all that drives back to core principles–applying core principles and really making the technology come out of that.
Drew Applebaum: Who should read this book, Dung?
Dung Duong: When we first started, the target audience was a kid probably in his or her 20s, 30s, who is doing well in the profession but looking for what’s next–pretty complacent but doing well. My point in all this was really to look at my kids and seeing where my kids would be at this time when they’re in their 20s and 30s. Where presumably they’re doing well at whatever they’re doing and looking for more. This book was tailored to give the audience a little bit of perspective.
Going back to my experiences, the hardships, and the stuff I went through, obviously, it won’t be germane to the next generation. But my hope is that they can look at my stories, see what I’ve been able to do with what I’ve had, and apply it to their own stories and background. I hope to give them a perspective of where I came from, not the problems they face or whatever sort of things they faced would be even close to what I did. But certainly, hopefully, they can gather some perspective and really look at the big picture about the world and see how they themselves would impact the world and use that for their own benefit.
Drew Applebaum: Talk to us about the title, Shifting Optics.
Dung Duong: My professional career has been dealing with optical systems, mechanical systems but mainly optics. So, for me, it was an interesting little parallel to have a title where it has my profession in it, as well as looking at perspective.
I grew up a lot differently than my kids will. Obviously, with being a boat person, going through poverty, and growing up in areas that probably are not as nice as my kids are in right now. I worry that they don’t have the perspective in life that they need. I want them to have more of a worldly perspective, and see what’s out there. I think I just saw something from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where a lot of people live on less than a dollar-90 a day. And that just came in today, I think.
I see my kids and the next generation, a lot of kids here as well, growing up in a bubble–in a situation where they may not see the bigger picture, and see what the world really is beyond our gated community, beyond the privilege that they have. I’m very much hoping that they can get a sense of understanding of a big world or the bigger world, so that they themselves can apply whatever they have been training or whatever they are passionate about, to improving this world in some way.
They don’t have to come up with inventions. They don’t have to be Nobel laureates or any of that. But in their own way, and having an impact that’s greater than themselves. Because I want to give them a perspective of a different life, one that their dad went through.
My story is not unique, unfortunately. There’s a lot of other stories of immigrations, stories of leaving a country–there’s a lot out there. And mine is, by far, not the worst. There’s a lot of stories that are much more tragic in some ways and people deal with a lot, a harder hardship than I did. I’m hoping that my little story can help my kids or the next generation see the bigger picture. So that they themselves can cope with and do something beyond themselves, and to help them through their own problems because once you have a bigger picture in mind, a goal set that is beyond yourself, then what you deal with on a day to day basis can be overcome more easily.
Drew Applebaum: Let’s dive into the book. Your book and your writing, even when you’re talking about your struggles, they read in almost a playful and fun tone. It’s such a great read and I think it’s really interesting how you reset and start each chapter with a paragraph on your experience escaping Vietnam. You always bring everything back to the beginning. Can you tell us that story about how you and your family left Vietnam?
Dung Duong: Certainly, we left Vietnam and I wouldn’t say forced but certainly the circumstances of the situation in Vietnam were not conducive to raising my sister and myself. My mom’s parents were fairly well off, they owned four houses back in Saigon or Ho-Chi-Minh City now. It was Saigon. Being rich or being affluent at the time communism took over, it was not necessarily the best sort of thing.
I think there was a soldier that essentially lived in my parent’s house for three months. He was camping out and trying to figure out where we hid our jewelry or wealth. The situation wasn’t conducive for us in that day. I think, looking back, could we have stayed? Probably. Would our lives have been different? Obviously.
My parents left the first time. And part of that chapter talks about having left and what we had to go through to leave. My parents obviously decided to leave. They had to go through different channels to get to the right person. We had to leave in darkness, both figuratively and literally, because that’s truly leaving a country, truly escaping from a regime. We did that.
We got on a little small boat and left in the middle of the night or in the dawn. Then we slowly made our way to a larger boat. Obviously, the experiences of being on a larger boat were pretty traumatic. Since I was a small kid, I doubt I remember as much as my sister, who was three years older than I. Of course, my parents remember a lot more. But that first trip didn’t go as well as we had hoped because we actually saw the land, the wind shifted, and we got blown back out to sea. For several days there, I think it was seven days we went without any food or water.
A bad memory I have was about the one person who got seasick. To this day, if I go out and go fishing, I get seasick. But how he ended up passing away was pretty difficult. I saw that he was just curled up. I still have the images–these flashes of images of a person with a green face. And obviously it wasn’t green, but you know, a green face looking at me and he was just curled up in a ball.
I think his story ended, unfortunately, pretty tragically. When we hit a floating island, we all deboarded and the next morning, we came back on a boat, and he wasn’t there. Unfortunately, there were some gaps.
Even that first boat trip where we finally did hit land, it was back in Vietnam. I spent several days or weeks in prison. Then, we were let go and my dad stayed there for 69 months or something like that.
Yeah, that first trip didn’t go as well as we anticipated. It was pretty eye-opening in a lot of ways.
Drew Applebaum: You mentioned your sister and your sister plays a major role in your life, still now. Can you talk about your relationship with her?
Dung Duong: I think my sister and I have a fairly normal relationship. I tease her all the time and she teases me all the time too. Growing up, we were never that combative. She would probably have a different story. But my sister’s always been my anchor. My parents, when we first got to the US, my parents spent pretty much all day trying to make ends meet.
They were working constantly. My mom especially. In a lot of ways, my sister raised me, along with other people who lived in our house when we were renting part of the house out. We were fairly close. I talked to her about all my problems and stuff like that. And I think in some ways, she does as well.
Our kids play together, and she’s fairly accomplished herself–she’s done well, she works for the FDA now. She is married and her husband works as a doctor for the University of Maryland. I get updates of COVID from a doctor’s perspective–how we’re handling it from a government standpoint and the actions that have been taken.
My sister and I have always been fairly tight, she helped raise me definitely. Certainly, her skill sets and my skill sets are different. Her EQ is probably much higher than my EQ. I have a little bit of IQ on her, but I think her EQ is definitely higher than me.
Drew Applebaum: Now, you brought up COVID, and can you talk about some of the tech you’ve been involved in? Because you casually throw out in the book that you tried to get funding for a handheld diagnostics instrument that could test and identify a strain of respiratory illness which would be a gamechanger right now. Can you tell us about that and some of the other incredible tech you’ve been a part of?
Dung Duong: I’ve been fortunate in my life with companies needing a person with my talent at the right times. I’ve got to play with a lot of stuff from government programs and future combat systems, to working on unrelated optical systems, one of which was at Luminex where we are looking at the respiratory video.
At the time, we were looking at a handheld diagnostic device. I was in a process of miniaturizing a lot of the technology. The internal program was looking at identifying exactly which respiratory illness because there’s a lot of different types of influenza. There’s the common cold, which is rhinovirus but there are 20 different things we were looking at. Luminex technology allows for multiplexing, so you’re able to test for a number of different strains at one time.
Back in 2006 and 2007 is when they were working on this handheld diagnostic platform and I was definitely integral in laying out the optics and having an understanding of how to put this together. I left to start Illumitex. It was a hard decision at the time, and I think most people view it as, well, we started this company and finally got funding. Moving over was simple.
However, to me, it wasn’t because, at Luminex, we were doing some pretty clever things with the technology and helping the world. However, I finally made the decision to move into Illumitex. I wasn’t even employee number one in my own company. I think I was like five or six when I started it. I think I’ve been fortunate in my career to have been around some very good people and very good technologies and been able to help them progress that technology.
Unfortunately, in this case, when I went over to help my own company, Illumitex, I don’t really know what happened. And since they hadn’t come out with that handheld device, I’m assuming that it didn’t move forward as much as I would like.
Drew Applebaum: What do you think your favorite innovation you’ve been a part of has been? And what do you think the most important innovation you’ve been a part of has been?
Dung Duong: That’s a good question. My favorite innovation is probably when I first started to come out in college. At the time, I was looking at trying to image fill through a target media without developing. So, it’s like a dense, dark, diffused piece of film. I think most people in film know that without development, it just looks like a balance blot, it’s hard to see through.
We had to develop and illuminate something to look through that and get the great new image behind that. I had just graduated college and I actually had several full rides ready for me. I accepted a full ride at the University of Arizona. I was having a lot of fun in Austin, so deciding to stay was a big deal at the time. I would say that my favorite would definitely have to be that illuminator. Because I tested every light source at the time for brightness and tried to figure out how much lighting to really put on the zone, getting the flexis there to be as high as possible. We were very successful with that. We developed some illuminators that nearly burned film when it’s going through. So, we had to get the latent image, but the film was literally burning because there is so much light hitting it as it is passing by the illuminator. That was my favorite.
I think as far as important, I think just looking up what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put out about how many people live on less than a dollar-90 US dollars per day, and with COVID, the food crisis business is there. The world will need additional food and where it comes from is going to be interesting. FARM2050 is an initiative and it talks about how much food is being produced and that they’re perishable–at which point you need a new process. The prediction is 2050 and it won’t be 2050, it is going to be somewhere much later than that. But certainly, it is coming.
As the population grows, as the amount of food production is going to go down due to climate change, at some point, those two graphs are going to cross. What can we do to really either push out that line to a point where we can produce enough food efficiently, even in the face of declining crop window, to support an entire population? So, I think as far as important, it is going to be standard innovations I have done on the agricultural side.
One of the things I’ve been fairly into is being able to get the most light out of the LED as possible. Later in my career, it’s really about the light and maximizing how much light gets to the crop and evolve systems and fixtures to allow for that efficient transfer of light to the plants itself.
Will vertical farming be the end-all? No, it will not be able to feed the world. There will be vertical farming, and we will definitely see an initiative and field crops all contributing to the food crisis that’s pending. I think the US saw that with the food crisis, with COVID, even though the US is always saying we have enough farming and that we can protect the food here. So, there is enough food that everyone here can have an abundance.
The rest of the world isn’t as fortunate. How to make growing food, essentially, cheap enough so that they can really influence and help the world, instead of having all of the people hungry every day, we can figure out some ways to really get them enough nourishment.
Drew Applebaum: Now, you did great in school. You have been doing incredibly well in your professional life but there were some shenanigans along the way, which I enjoyed. They are really fun reading the book. People need to hear one of my favorite stories in the book. Can you tell us about the Bone Brawl?
Dung Duong: Oh, the Bone Brawl! When I first started with Martial Way, Larry, he’s the founder of Martial Way and teaches. He is the sensei, the mentor, the teacher. He and I built up a pretty good relationship. I wouldn’t say I was his best dude, by any means, but I was definitely one of the better ones. I was never going there to fight or to be a professional fighter.
At the Bone Brawl, I came there to watch. I watched a couple of my friends, and I didn’t bring any of my gear, I didn’t train for it. I didn’t really anticipate that I would be fighting that night. I showed up to the Bone Brawl with that same sort of mentality, “I’m here to watch, I’m early.” But one thing led to another and then Larry and a few other folks really convinced me to fight that night.
Then one of my friends came up and said, “Yeah, I have the gear necessary that you need to fight.” Then being a guy, you understand there are certain things you need to protect, and having those duct-taped to put that on was an interesting experience if nothing else. The fact is I thought I did fairly well. I went to the ring being the first fight, having not trained for it, having just finished a big meal at this warehouse.
At the end of the fight, I thought I had won. My hands were raised, I think it was more of the ring model pumping out, and I thought I’d won. My opponent was actually there, in the ring, just sitting there with his mouthpiece still, not in place, because he had spit it out.
It was a good experience. It was one of those that I wouldn’t say help build character, but it was just one of those things that was off the beaten path for me. It was fun, it was one of those experiences I will never forget.
Drew Applebaum: What Dung has not mentioned yet is that he was on a date at the time and had just come from dinner to watch these fights. And then was a fighter.
Dung Duong: I am one of those guys who, having been a boat person, I don’t like to waste food. So, those warehouse portions aren’t exactly small either. I filled my stomach thinking I was there to watch, and low and behold, I am in the ring fighting. I think it was in the book–it covers a little bit more some of the details, like how Ollie and I made a pact not to hit each other’s faces, which he thoroughly did not comply with.
As soon as the bell rang, he kicked me in the face. Besides those minor throws, he and I still hugged at the end. That was interesting and actually it helped me. After that first round, there was so much nerve. You are just going in not knowing what to expect. I had these long shorts that weren’t mine, they were one of my friends. You know, of course, duct-taped and everything. To walk in the ring and get kicked in the face right away is an eye-opener.
I really had tunnel vision happening. Because really my peripheral vision was going away. I could literally see it going away and it narrowed just to my opponent. I didn’t get knocked out and was able to finish the fight. That experience did help me later because having stepped in the ring, the first time I just felt nervous.
The second time, when I did stick fighting, some months later because all the nerves were gone, I was more prepared to deal with the situation. You know, all of that apprehension builds up the first time. But once you get through it again, all that apprehension goes away. I think that looking at that from an analogy to the business world, and everything else, the good news is you are never going into a boardroom where people are trying to kill you, right? Almost literally never.
So, after that, it became a little easier for me to come into situations that are unknown. And still, be able to go through it without all the apprehension that goes into it. I am still a terrible public speaker. I still get all of the nerves and apprehensions of public speaking but going into boardrooms and presentations, I am a lot more comfortable having stepped into a situation where a ton of people are watching. And getting kicked in the face right away.
Shifting Your Focus
Drew Applebaum: Yeah, you can draw parallels from that experience in your life to starting your own company where there is excitement at first, and then all of a sudden you are going to get kicked in the face. Round two comes and you got your feet under you, you get used to it and then the success comes from that point.
Dung Duong: Absolutely, that is one of the parallels I am hoping people draw from the book is how the stories I tell apply to their own lives. People who know me know that I joke around way too much, and probably say some of the wrong things trying to be funny. All in the spirit of trying to be funny, I say the wrongs things a lot. I probably offended some people, and that is something I sincerely apologize if you are one of those guys and you are listening, and you are one of the people I offended at one time or another.
To me, it is all about really keeping an eye on the bigger picture and really trying to figure out what your goals are and going forward to those goals. Sometimes life takes a slightly different path to get to your goal, like the Bone Brawl, I think everything in life is a learning experience, and a journey that you have to face, and that you have to be able to get as much as you can out of it.
Drew Applebaum: Can you talk to us a little bit about the charity work that you and your family take part in?
Dung Duong: Yeah, so after the liquidation in 2018, one of the things that I wanted to do was start to give back a little bit and do something that is fruitful, not just for myself but for the world. My wife got me starting in volunteering. I volunteered for a daycare and volunteered for organizations. In school, I did a lot of that, but after college, I didn’t do much of that at all.
My wife really got me started on this. And in Dallas, within this community, they have a scholarship program, and the scholarship programs allowed for giving through a trust that allowed for some money to be given to the top students in Dallas. I was part of that committee.
Really from that and from my experiences, looking at my kids and who they play with, looking at our limited gated community, we thought about how to expand this and really do this with a much bigger society.
One of the things we did is start a prospective journey, actually, my wife started the journey I am just here to help. But really we wanted to offer the world–we’re starting in Vietnam but really the whole goal is to be more global, to give underprivileged children with potential the avenue to reach their full potential. That is one side of it. The other side of it is often helping kids over the US understand or see the bigger picture of another kid who is growing up in poverty.
Hopefully by seeing the kids over in the US, or the families over the US, it can help the child over in Vietnam, as I said today. We hope we expand to other regions in the years to come, and really allow both families, both children to eventually make an impact in the world. Because what we see is kids growing up in the US with all the resources and really not applying themselves to their full potential. Whereas, a kid over in an impoverished country having the talent but not having the resources to reach their full potential. So, hopefully, by connecting one to the other, both will have a higher probability of impacting the world and helping society.
Drew Applebaum: Yeah, that is really great work, and Dung, writing a book is no joke. So, first of all, congratulations.
Dung Duong: Thank you.
Drew Applebaum: And if readers could take away just one thing from your book, what would you like it to be?
Dung Duong: My goal has always been for the real community perspective to get to all of us. The story is really not about me. I am hoping the story is a way, a path, towards them to understand their own lives and how they have gotten where they are, in order to take that perspective and apply it to helping them grow and making an impact in the world.
Impacting the world is not solving some huge problem out there–not trying to make a vaccine, you know. It is not about that. It is about helping a neighbor out, however you can. It is seeing the bigger picture so that it is not always just you. It is not always about focusing on, “Hey, what can I do to make myself better? What can I do?” Well, you should do that, but what can I do to make myself healthier, make myself more famous? How do I take all of that and empower myself to help those around me do better?
The message of the book–if you get nothing from it, there are some funny things. You can laugh at me as much as you want, but hopefully, at the end of the day, you can see that you yourself have the power and resources to do better and hopefully you will.
Drew Applebaum: Dung, it has been such a pleasure, and I am so excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called, Shifting Optics, and you can find it on Amazon. Besides checking out the book Dung, where can people find you?
Dung Duong: Email is probably the best way, and my wife’s charity is listed in the book. So, I think there is contact information on the website. I should have an email address in the book and email is the best way to get a hold of me. Just email me, I will respond.
Drew Applebaum: Awesome, Dung thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Dung Duong: Thanks a lot, sir.