Former Quantitative Trader Spurns Wall Street to Explore the Final Frontier

peter seattle space needle picture Former Quantitative Trader Spurns Wall Street to Explore the Final Frontier

Mr. Platzker at Seattle’s Space Needle.

“The old paradigm that I’m trying to get rid of is that space is for governments and the super-rich, and it takes years, and it costs millions of dollars, and I say this is just wrong” said Peter Platzer, an Austrian-born former CERN physicist and hedge fund quant who was in town to promote his start-up NanoSatisfi. “It’s the democratization of innovation. We’re going to let people write their own space experiments.”

Mr. Platzer’s idea is this: Equip a small satellite with an open-source processor (Arduino, if you’re into that sort of thing) and 25 sensors, including a camera, Geiger counter, spectrometer, etc.; Launch the thing into orbit; Rent space on the satellite to anyone with a few hundred dollars, the ability to write some simple code and the desire to play in the heavens. From there the possibilities are endless: Amateur astronomers, budding physicists, video game designers or hopeless romantics could find a use for the service, Mr. Platzer said:

“You could program the satellite to send your girlfriend a text message from space. ‘Happy birthday, I love you.’ Once you put the power of space into the hands of the people, who knows what they’ll come up with.”

For Mr. Platzer, the project represents the convergence of lifelong interests. Born in Vienna and trained as a physicist at the Max Plank Institute and CERN—European Organization for Nuclear Research—he feared that the slow-pace of the space bureaucracy would prevent him from getting meaningful work done, and decamped for the private sector. He traveled the world for Boston Consulting Group before earning an MBA at Harvard Business School and building quantitative trading programs for a series of investment funds, including Deutsche Bank and The Rohatyn Group. Technology advanced, and private money began to find its way into space exploration, and Mr. Platzer saw a chance to rekindle his early passion. He enrolled at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, and began developing the project that would become NanoSatisfi.

With the Kickstarter launching today—he’s hoping to raise $35,000, but says he’ll launch the first satellite regardless of whether he meets that goal—Mr. Platzer sat down with The Observer to talk about his path from Wall Street to the edge of the final frontier.

You were trained as a physicist, but spent the bulk of your post-graduate years in finance. What happened?

Did I always want to do space? Yes. When I was finishing my physics degree, and I vividly remember someone telling me the story of a scientist who worked on an instrument for 15 years so that he could get data and write a paper and get tenure, and then when the instrument got launched, the rocket blew up, and with that his career went out the window. I didn’t want to go into a field if I didn’t see a potential other than to be massively frustrated.