He failed Trigonometry in high school. He had more than one encounter with law enforcement authorities in his native Bergen County. But his juvenile delinquency documentation, something he once hid from his family, is now framed and on his wall as just another step in a journey that has taken him to Earth’s orbit.
Olsen said he went on to college because he “didn’t know what to do next,” but completed his academic career in short order: he earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics, a bachelor’s of science in Electrical Engineering and a master’s in Physics from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and was awarded a Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Virginia, all by the age of 25.
He said that college was an invaluable environment for self-discovery, and he lauds community colleges that offer that opportunity.
“I love places like Mercer, where you can get things together and then do whatever you want to do,” Olsen said.
After working for RCA Labs, Olsen went on to create the company EPITAXX, a fiber-optic detector manufacturer, in 1984 with Vladimir Ban. It was sold in 1990 for $12 million. He then founded Sensors Unlimited, a near-infrared camera manufacturer, in 1992 with Marshall Cohen. Sensors was sold to Finisar Corp. for $600 million in 2000, repurchased by the management team in 2002 for $6 million, and sold again to Goodrich Corp. in 2005 for $60 million.
The final sale of Finisar was actually completed while Olsen was in space, an experience that almost didn’t happen. Olsen said that while he was training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow, the rigorous physical examination process revealed a small spot on his lung. It would later clear up, but Olsen had to reapply to the program eight times before he was allowed back in.
“I felt like I had flunked out of school,” Olsen said. “But it was like when I failed trig in high school – don’t give up.”
Olsen launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket TMA-7 on Oct. 1, 2005 with Cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev and Astronaut Bill McArthur. The ship docked to the ISS on Oct. 3, and returned to earth on Oct. 11. Olsen performed more than 150 orbits of the Earth and logged almost 4 million miles of weightless travel during his 10 days in space.
Today Olsen is the president of GHO Ventures in Princeton, where he manages “angel” investments – venture capital for emerging companies. His investments range from companies involved in power systems to learning aids. And while many of the companies he works with are in high-tech businesses, Olsen says the product is irrelevant.
“I invest in people, not industries,” Olsen said. His advice to other would-be entrepreneurs: hire people that are better than you; don’t avoid mistakes – deal with them; and above all else, don’t give up.
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