by Paul Mullin
If you have a spare $22 million lying around, then you can follow Dr. Gregory Olsen’s footsteps into space as a private citizen. If not, then consider following in his other set of footsteps and starting your own business.
Olsen gave his speech, “A Tale of Two Startups,” at the first major event for the new Entrepreneurial Studies Club on Tuesday afternoon. He spoke to students about starting and selling two companies and the struggle to become the third private citizen in history to go into space.
Currently the founder and owner of GHO Ventures, which is based in Princeton, Olsen urged students to never waver in pursuit of their dreams.
“The secret to success is the same thing as the secret to life,” Olsen said. “Don’t give up.”
Earlier in his career, Olsen founded two companies: a fiber-optic detector manufacturer called EPITAXX in 1984, and Sensors Unlimited Inc., a near-infrared camera manufacturer, in 1992.
After selling both of these in 1990 and 2005, respectively, Olsen created GHO Ventures, a company that makes “angel” investments. Basically, Olsen invests in small, “raw startup companies” that are just beginning the same journey he has made three times.
According to Olsen, when following one’s dreams, money should be no object.
“People who say, ‘Oh, I would do this but I just don’t have the money’ aren’t thinking hard enough,” he said. “Money is a resource, it isn’t everything.”
Olsen’s attention shifted from his small business to space travel when he read an article in The New York Times about the first two private citizens to orbit Earth: American multimillionaire Dennis Tito in 2001 and South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth in 2002.
Olsen’s journey into space began in April 2004, when he began five months of training in Moscow for an October 2004 launch. However, two months into training, he was disqualified from the program when a medical examination found a black spot on one of his lungs.
After a subsequent examination by his doctor revealed that the spot was harmless (it eventually disappeared), Olsen spent nine months asking for permission to re-enter the program. Finally, in May 2005, he was readmitted.
“If I had ever given up on trying it would never have happened,” Olsen said.
On Oct. 1, 2005, Olsen launched into space in a Russian Soyuz rocket, accompanied by cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev and astronaut Bill McArthur.
According to Olsen, the passenger portion of the vehicle was “very cramped,” and akin to the tiny Apollo 11 module on display in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The three men sat in this compartment for six hours before docking at the International Space Station.
“I’m not ashamed to say that we all wore Huggies diapers, and we all got to use them,” Olsen said.
During his 10-day stay outside the atmosphere, Olsen performed various tasks with the crew and even educated students via video conference at Ridgefield Park High School, from which he graduated.
Olsen described weightlessness as a joy and showed videos of himself drinking water that came out of a tube as small, floating droplets and typing on a keyboard, every keystroke pushing him further up into the ceiling of the space station.
Immediately upon returning to Earth, the three space travelers were thoroughly examined. Olsen was proud to report that the decrease in gravity had actually made him grow one inch taller.
“You generally lose it within a day, though,” he said.
Olsen told students to follow their dreams and not to “just do it for the money.”
According to him, the keys to success are doing something you love and making sure you don’t give up.
“People always ask you, ‘What is your plan? What do you want to do in life?’” Olsen said. “If you don’t know, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”