LOOSE ENDS: The sky’s the limit: Greg Olsen wants to inspire others to believe in themselves

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Greg Olsen

By Pam Hersh
   Many in Princeton are familiar with the picture of Princeton-based entrepreneur Greg Olsen in his spacesuit, an image used to promote Mr. Olsen’s book, essays, speeches and presentations.
   Renowned for his trip to the International Space Station in October 2005, Mr. Olsen — the third private citizen to make a self-funded trip to the space station — is finding the space-suit picture to be a bit faded and “old hat” (or “old helmet”). It’s an incomplete reflection of his aspirations in life.
   Many in Princeton are unfamiliar with the picture of Greg Olsen on horseback at his winery in South Africa or at his a ranch located within a Crow American Indian reservation in Montana. Also known as ‘Travels in the Sky,’ his Crow American Indian name bestowed upon him eight years ago, Mr. Olsen enjoys sharing the story of how he got to outer space, the winery and the ranch. It is a colorful portrait of a man who came from very humble origins, succeeded through perseverance and instinct, and now enjoys teaching and encouraging others pursuing a fulfilling personal and professional life.
   I caught up with him on the 11th anniversary of his space trip, as he was holding a meeting at The Witherspoon Grill, one of his three downtown Princeton offices, the other two being Starbucks and actual office space at 92 Nassau St. above Starbucks and Hamilton Jewelers. When I saw him, he was engaged in his role of entrepreneurial mentoring.
   A couple of years after his famous jaunt to outer space, Princeton University’s engineering school named him as the school’s first “entrepreneur in residence.” The position, according to the then dean of engineering school H. Vincent Poor, would give students and faculty members access to advice and ideas from a highly successful business founder.
   The picture of Mr. Olsen in casual jeans and T-shirt and conferring with a business colleague at a restaurant table fails to generate the same dramatic impact of the picture of him in a spacesuit standing next to a Russian cosmonaut — but both are equally exciting to him.
   ”I love listening to ideas and helping people find the best route for bringing those ideas and dreams to reality,” said Mr. Olsen, who now is president of his tech-start-up investment firm, GHO Ventures.
   Princeton University’s appointment was in recognition of Mr. Olsen not only as space pioneer, but also as a pioneer in the electronic sensors industry. He was co-founder and chairman of Sensors Unlimited, which developed optoelectronic devices, such as sensitive near-infrared and shortwave-infrared cameras for NASA and other clients. Goodrich Corporation, a Fortune 500 aerospace and defense company, acquired Sensors in 2005 for $60 million. The cash sale gave Mr. Olsen the fiscal freedom to pursue his avocations and vocations throughout the world — and universe. That included investing in small, high-risk, technology-based startup enterprises; consulting/ teaching/advising, as a physics professor at Rider University and as the resident entrepreneur at Princeton University; and giving lectures to business groups and school groups throughout the country.
   ”My message to everyone no matter what the age or background is to be creative, flexible, intuitive, and perseverant. Do not believe people who say you can’t do something, “ he said, drawing on his own life’s experiences as a kid who many had written off as someone unlikely to succeed in academia or business. He likes to encourage minorities and women, in particular, to become schooled in science and engineering.
   ”I also take my own advice when making decisions about where to invest my money,” he said. “My investment decisions regarding high-risk tech startups are based on 100 percent instinct. I need my graduate science training to help me evaluate the feasibility of certain tech firm propositions, but beyond that I rely on no business formulas or a special process. I have no business education at all — I just go with my gut.”
   Once he has invested in a company (generally a 30 to 50 percent investor), he sits on its board, but refrains from micromanaging. He said he listens far more than he talks, and lets the management team know he is available at all times to respond to questions.
   Born in Brooklyn, Greg Olsen, the son of an electrician, graduated from Ridgefield Park High School in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, in 1962. “I was generally considered a failure because of my poor grades in high school and was discouraged from going to college… But I got a small scholarship from my father’s electrician’s union, and although on the verge of enlisting in the military, I decided to take the scholarship money and to see if I could defy predictions,” he said.
   And defy he did. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in physics from Fairleigh Dickenson University; a master’s from Fairleigh Dickinson University; and then a Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Virginia.
   Before founding Sensors Unlimited, he worked at RCA Labs (Sarnoff Center) as a research scientist, accumulating 12 patents, and founded EPITAXX, a fiber-optic detector manufacturer, which he sold for $12 million.
   What next for Travels in the Sky? A trip to Mars? A self-driving car? Robotics investments?
   ”My plan for the future? My only plan is to wake up in the morning and keep on going, doing the things I love.”