Innovation tends to be one of those things business movers and shakers put at the fore of public conversation. People who want everyone to know that their fingers are pressed tightly against some future-driven pulse point or another always seem to want everyone to also know that the future is full of new approaches and means of doing something.
Greg Olsen has a slightly different viewpoint. He’s as interested in innovation as the next guy, but he isn’t the innovator himself and doesn’t pretend to be. “I always say, I don’t do innovation, I find it,” Olsen says. “That’s what entrepreneurship is.”
Entrepreneurship and innovation, he adds, are certainly not about rigid rules. “I hate reading business plans,” Olsen says. “It’s like homework to me.”
So what exactly does Olsen, president of GHO Ventures at 92 Nassau Street, lifetime entrepreneur, and citizen astronaut (well, cosmonaut — yes, really), look for when it comes to tech innovation? Not the tech, he says. He’s looking for the entrepreneurship. The passion and the hard work; the people with ideas and the drive to get them to fruition. It’s less important what the technology is and more important that the people behind it will, by any means necessary, make it work.
Olsen will be part of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association’s Innovation Summit on Wednesday, November 2, at the Princeton plasma Physics Laboratory. The event runs from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. and will feature an array of tech entrepreneurs and the people who make their ventures possible.
Olsen will join Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of NJBIA; John DeLooper of PPPL; Bob Hugin, executive chairman of Celgene Corporation (keynoter); Katherine O’Neill of JumpStart New Jersey Angel Network; angel investor John Ason; Daniel Borok of Newark Venture Partners; Kathleen Coviello of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority; Jim Gunton of the New Jersey Technology Council Venture Fund; Dennis Bone, director of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship at Montclair State University; David Sorin of McCarter & English; and entrepreneur Clark Lagemann.
Cost to attend the summit is $120. Visit www.NJBIA.org or call 800-499-4419.
Olsen, the son of an electrician, was born in Brooklyn and during his formative school years in the 1950s and 60s was written off as a failure by teachers because he had poor grades in high school in New Jersey. Destined for the Army, Olsen instead tried college on some scholarship money from his father’s IBEW chapter, and eventually earned multiple bachelor’s degrees from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1966 and 1968. In 1971 he earned his doctorate in materials science from the University of Virginia.
Olsen spent the remainder of the 1970s and early ’80s at RCA Labs/Sarnoff, working in fiber optics and lasers, and did some postdoctoral work in Africa. He also taught physics. When the entrepreneurship struck, he co-founded Epitaxx in 1984 at the Princeton Service Center. Six years later, he sold the company and founded Sensors Unlimited. He sold and later repurchased the company, then sold it again in 2005.
That same year, Olsen became the third private citizen ever to go into space. He flew to the International Space Station with Soyuz TMA-7 and returned with Soyuz TMA-6. He says he’d go back to space in a second if he could.
Back on earth, though, Olsen is no less prone to lofty ambitions. He’s a fan of high-risk/high-reward startups that take a lot of chances, and he firmly believes that “intuition, instinct, and hard work” are more important than any one specific technological idea. When turned externally, Olsen’s bent towards high-risk ventures comes out as a fondness for entrepreneurs who can roll with the ebbs and flows startups can be subjected to.
“What strikes me is a guy who can take a punch and get back up,” he says. “Success is the easiest thing in the world to live with. You really find out who you are when there are setbacks. When you can’t make payroll, that’s what strengthens you.”
Tech and finance, unite! If Olsen has a piece of advice for tech entrepreneurs, it’s to learn to communicate better with the people who will invest in their ideas.
“Tech people generally don’t appreciate financial people,” he says. “But the financial aspect is very important.” The last thing he wants to see or hear from a startup is the all-too-familiar “just give me the money and let me do my thing” approach. At GHO, Olsen says, the companies he counsels are those that know the importance of staying in real touch with their financiers.
Academics. One of tech’s underlying needs is a pool of knowledge and the people who know how to use that pool. Academic institutions are an obvious source for this kind of knowledge bank, but so often entrepreneurs ignore them.
“Just go do it,” Olsen says. Call universities and research institutions. Explain your project, or if you’re a funder, inquire about how to help get a project off the ground. Most people in the academic world are flattered to be contacted by someone who wants to take their ideas into the real world of money and business, he says.
You need a leader. Leadership, like innovation, is one of those business buzzwords that tends to lose its power because it’s said so often. But it’s vital, Olsen says. To really get a tech venture up and running, yes, you of course need the technical savvy and the money, but you need that one person who knows how to build the company’s culture and who can talk to financiers, government agencies, academics, and all the rest too.
And leadership, Olsen says, is in the presentation. It’s not browbeating sales, it’s conversation. It’s making potential partners understand what you’re doing and letting them come to be part of it on their own. Coercion doesn’t work any better in tech than it does in life.
Overall, Olsen says, putting the right people together and launching tech startups is a matter of digging and taking a lot of punches until you see the right matchup. “There are a lot of potential entrepreneurs in New Jersey,” he says. “It’s my task to go and find them.”