Gregory Olsen has had a successful career as a photonics entrepreneur. Building two companies from the ground up, he's been successful in business by anyone's definition. But last October, Olsen managed to add something to his resume that will remain a dream for most of today's adults. He traveled to space.
Olsen became just the third fare-paying space traveler, visiting the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz rocket launched from the Russian space center in Kazakhstan.
Approaching age 60, getting to travel in space was "the furthest thing from my mind," Olsen says. He was much more concerned with running his company, Sensors Unlimited (Princeton, NJ), which he founded, sold in 2000, and reacquired in 2002. The company was recently sold again to Goodrich Corporation and is now part of the Goodrich Optical and Space Systems division.
Like most who grew up in the '50s and '60s, Olsen was fascinated by space. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first space travel by humans in 1960 fired the imaginations of young people everywhere.
"I was in eighth grade, 12 years old when Sputnik flew," he says. "That was a shock to us all; anyone my age will remember that. I remember the teachers telling us, 'We have to catch up to these Russians.'"
Olsen considers himself lucky to have grown up in the early days of space flight. "When we got off the earth, it was a wonderful thing. It's hard to get that kind of spectacular achievement now." The seeds of his recent adventure were planted in his boyhood, but it only began to take shape after the first paid space flight by Dennis Tito in April 2001.
During training for the flight, Olsen developed an appreciation for the astronauts and cosmonauts he worked with. "They're very bright people, with advanced degrees, typically military pilots," he says. "Very driven, success oriented, and on top of it, the nicest people I've met ever met in my life."
Olsen's training prepared him for most everything he might encounter during the actual flight, including a depressurization on the way down, he says. But there were a couple of exceptions.
"Using the toilet and eating were a little different than I might have expected, and that's something you can't rehearse for," he says.
Olsen's background gave him some special interests in space - his companies have contracted with NASA and the aerospace industry, and his PhD in physics gave him plenty of preparation for what he might experience.
"I had courses in orbital mechanics, and I used to teach basic physics," he says. "So to actually get up there and experience mass, momentum, and inertia was quite a thing. Even though I understood the physics it still felt like magic."
The technology that Olsen has made his career with - photonics - was all around him on his flight as well.
"We had a laser range finder on board, and our docking is automatic, but if something goes wrong, we've got to be able to do the docking ourselves. And so how do you tell how far away from the space station you are? We would use a laser range finder as used in many military applications to determine how far we are and what our velocity should be in order to do the docking," he says. Another instrument used on the trip was an infrared horizon locator. "In space even more than in an aircraft you've got to rely on your instruments. Your senses just won't tell you where you are. So for instance, how do you tell where the Earth is? It's done with an infrared sensor on board that can sense the difference between the heat emitted from Earth and the lack of heat emitted by space."
One of Sensors Unlimited's first contracts was with NASA for an indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) camera, and Olsen had hoped to take it with him to space and send back some images from it. But the trip was not affiliated with NASA, despite Olsen's good relations with the U.S. agency, and the imaging chip was export controlled. So he took the camera with him, but not the chip.
Olsen hopes that the benefits of manufacturing in space will eventually outweigh the "overwhelming" costs, and he notes the importance of learning more about it, particularly in areas such as food production.
"Growing plants and other things, not only for commercial reasons, but if we're going to make these long-distance trips, like to Mars, how the hell are you going to get food? It takes two years to go to and from Mars. You're gonna have to grow plants. So biological stuff will come in. But I think in this decade we're in, you're [also] going to see more and more commercial stuff."
Back on Earth, Olsen sees his experience as a way to inspire young people to pursue science, and he's planning to share it as much as he can.
"First of all, we've got make kids more aware of how much fun science is," he says. And listen, going up in space is really fun -- that's the kind of thing kids get excited about." He'll take his experiences to schools, and intends to pay special attention to younger children, inner city schools, and girls. He will take something along from his trip, such as his space suit, to let the kids see some physical evidence of his adventure.
"But then I say, 'Hey, how did I get into space? I studied math and science.' And I have this whole spiel -- I was not a good high school student; in fact I screwed up a lot, I failed trigonometry, yet I hung in there and got to where I am by science and engineering, so if I can do it, you guys can do it too."
While Olsen supports government funding of science and math in education, he says, "We can't just say 'Hey, government, fix this.' It's everybody's problem, at all levels. And we can't go to our school systems and say, 'Hey, here's a billion dollars, go fix this.' It's everybody. It's the parents, it's the students themselves, everybody has to take part."
Entrepreneurship was Olsen's first claim to fame. After 11 years as a research scientist at RCA Labs, he developed an InGaAs photo detector that could be used for fiber optics. "While we were doing it, I watched this process and I thought, 'I could do this better, faster, and cheaper.'" He worked on a business plan and with a coworker, Vladimir Ban, formed Epitaxx.
"I've never been a big long-range planner," he says. "This all happened in less than a year's time frame. So we started Epitaxx, and I did things on a shoestring. We had about a million dollars in venture capital, which was a lot more than it is today, but with that kind of money we built two crystal growth systems with our own hands, an entire semiconductor processing line. We did a lot with that money and just toughed it out."
The partners sold the company in 1990. Olsen started Sensors Unlimited in 1992, focusing on infrared imaging with partner Marshall Cohen.
"Instead of selling arrays for doing industrial spectroscopy, we found out that in the fiber optics market everyone was doing this wavelength division multiplexing and they needed our arrays," he says. By 1999-2000 the business really took off, and was almost doubling every year, Olsen says. "Finisar bought us for the outrageous amount of $600 million. That number bounces around depending what time we quote the stock price at, but that's certainly the correct order of magnitude."
The $35 a share stock price at the time of the sale dropped in the market crash that followed, and by 2002 it was down to 70 cents. Olsen offered to buy back the company, and did so for $6 million.
"Then we went from fiber optics to our strength, which was military and aerospace applications, and built it up a second time," he says. "In October , we sold the company for $60 million. So it's sort of a rags-to-riches story."
Olsen doesn't claim to have a magic formula for success, "I just stuck to the basics. It's like at home, when you don't have enough money, you don't spend. And you don't hire people when you can't afford it -- just real simple rules."
He boils it down to three simple words: "Don't give up! In the year 2000 everybody thought it was easy: you go out and you raise five or 10 million dollars, you hire some lawyers and accountants and blah blah blah -- and they found out it wasn't easy. Well, it's never easy, and what really separates the winners from losers is not who's the slickest or who's the smartest. It's who hangs in there and doesn't give up."
He also credits SPIE with helping him make some key connections.
"SPIE is a great, great organization for networking," he says. "You guys do trade shows very well, and all your publications, but you provide a forum for people like me to network. There's a guy named Erwin Kudman, who has a company, Infrared Associates, and I think he's bought and sold his company four times and he's back in business now, highly profitable. He does all the SPIE shows. He was a mentor toward me, and he taught me 'Hey, come to these shows,' and he said, 'Don't sit at your booth,' he said, "Get out, and go around to the other booths,' and I found one of the best sales methods I ever came across."
Olsen's background as an entrepreneur and his adventures in space haven't changed him much, he says. Like most everything in his life, he's learned from the experience and hopes to share it as best he can.
"I didn't have any huge spiritual or religious experiences while I was up there," he says. "One of the things that's different about me is I feel this obligation now to share this experience with many others. There's some reason I was able to do this, and I'm just super thankful for it."
Gregory H. Olsen is chairman of the Board of Directors and co-founder of Sensors Unlimited Inc., a developer and manufacturer of optoelectronic devices for fiber optic communications systems, photonic and near-infrared imaging devices. He earned a master's degree in Physics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and his PhD in Materials Science at the University of Virginia. Olsen serves on advisory committees to Princeton University, the University of Southern California Photonics Center, the University of Florida Microelectronics Center, the University of Virginia and the City College of New York.
Rich Donnelly, SPIE Newsroom Managing Editor