Greg Olsen appointed engineering school's 'entrepreneur in residence'

By Teresa Riordan
March 15, 2007

Greg OlsenPrinceton University’s engineering school has named Greg Olsen, a pioneer in the sensors industry and in space travel, as its first “entrepreneur in residence.”

The position gives students and faculty members access to advice and ideas from a highly successful business founder and adds momentum to the growing number of entrepreneurial activities at the school, said H. Vincent Poor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Olsen said that a company he cofounded, Sensors Unlimited, benefited greatly during its early days from collaborations with Princeton’s researchers in material science. Christopher Dries, who received his Ph.D. from Princeton, went on to become the vice president of research and development at Sensors, which is located in Princeton.

“Sensors Unlimited got a lot of help from Princeton and there is a nice trade going on already between Princeton and entrepreneurship,” Olsen said. “I just want to keep that going.”

Sensors Unlimited 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 in cash.

“Having Princeton interact with industry is a really great thing,” said Olsen. “It’s good for the companies; it’s good for the students; it’s good for the University. I’m looking forward to doing whatever I can to get research out of Princeton University and into the world.”

Olsen’s appointment is with Princeton’s Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, in collaboration with the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM).

Olsen went into space with much fanfare in October 2005 as one of the world’s first private citizens to become a self-funded astronaut. He traveled on a Russian Soyuz rocket for a 10-day visit to the International Space Station.  Since then he has been devoting much of his time exhorting American students to pursue careers in science and engineering.

He admits that he himself was not always a stellar student. “Actually, in high school I was on the brink of juvenile delinquency,” he said.

But in college he became serious about his studies -- graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson with two bachelor’s degrees and going on to the University of Virginia for his doctorate in materials science.

Upon getting his Ph.D., Olsen became a research scientist, first at the University of Port Elizabeth, in South Africa, and then at RCA Laboratories (now Sarnoff), where he developed a photodetector made of the exotic metals indium-gallium-arsenide.

Although he lacked business experience, Olsen thought he could produce detectors faster and more cheaply than RCA could. So in 1984 he cofounded his first company, Epitaxx, which manufactured emitters and detectors for fiber optics.

“I just sort of morphed from being a bench research scientist into an entrepreneur,” he said.

His new position at Princeton is itself entrepreneurial. “Since this is the first time we have had an entrepreneur in residence, Greg will be defining the position,” said Poor. “He is such an agile and innovative thinker that we have great expectations.”

Olsen said that he would be making himself available to University researchers and students to offer one-on-one advice. But, in general, he offered the following as his main principles of entrepreneurship:

• Don’t give up. “That’s the secret,” Olsen said. “People think there is a magic recipe that if you do A, B, and C then you will succeed. The only thing you can be sure of is that hard times will come.”

• Be prepared. “Don’t try to avoid mistakes,” he said. “Try to deal with them quickly.”

• Hire people who are better than you. “Most people struggle with that,” said Olsen. “Most people would like to have people they can control easily themselves rather than people who will ultimately become better than they are. I found out over time that it’s just an easier way of doing things to have really smart people working for you. I don’t struggle with the ego thing. There are a lot of people in the field who are smarter than me. I’m just glad to be able to work with them.”