“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.
So management consulting…
I got hooked on the idea that you can take large, amorphous problems and break them down into pieces that you can than solve and put back together again, because that’s exactly what you do as a physicist. Why is a bird flying? It’s not concrete, so you break it down—what forces are working on the bird—and then you build a model from that and you can start making predictions and see if they come true. And that’s what management consultants do.
And from there to quantitative trading…
I was working on the Singapore Stock Exchange, and I was doing a lot of capital markets analysis, doing a lot of research into understanding that whole universe. I remember, I was walking down the street in Singapore, and I said, wouldn’t it be fun to write a computer program to trade the stock market? I said, ‘That’s way too much fun, it can’t be possible. Stop dreaming Peter.’ Two years later I’m sitting in Harvard Business School, and we go around and introduce ourselves. So I tell my story, and the next person over introduced himself and said, for the last six months I’ve been writing a program to trade the markets.
Needless to say, we started talking, and four months later we started a company to do exactly that.
What’s different about Space now?
You feel it stronger in the Valley than here, but there is a huge push to the private sector. Money starts to be available. If you were to ask NASA today, ‘How long will it take to put a man on the moon?’ They’d tell you, ‘Give us 25 years and half-trillion dollars.’ And in the ’60s, when they had nothing, it took them eight or nine years to do the same thing. They could not do today what Elon Musk just did. It’s like the Bannister mile has been broken. No one thought you could break a 4-minute mile, and then Bannister did it and within six months, six other people did it.
OK, so we can rent some space on your nanosatellite. What then?
You can do really cool things with earth observation with nanosatellites, such as mapping the ocean temperature, mapping rainforests, atmospheric density, space weather. One of the experiments that I would want to run is measure the magnetosphere, which shields us from solar radiation, to get a sense of the shape of the earth’s magnetic field. I think people will want to take pictures of planet—hobby astronomy is a $100 million business every year.
But I purposefully don’t try to think about it. If I had asked you in 2008, how many applications will be on the App Store, what are people going to do with it, I doubt we would have come up with even a fraction of the 600,000 applications that people invented. Maybe Brad Pitt wants to buy Angelina Jolie her own personal satellite. He buys her all sorts of other crazy things.