Pure Genius

Space traveler talks about keeping our grid safe

Posting in Cities

Entrepreneur, scientist and adventurer Greg Olsen talks about the hazards of stray voltage on Earth.

I met Greg Olsen five years ago in Moscow, when we were both visiting Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training center. At the time, he was gearing up for his own training to launch into space with Space Adventures, and in 2005, he became the third civilian to orbit the earth on the International Space Station.

After 10 days in space, Olsen, a research scientist and entrepreneur who has been awarded 12 patents, returned to our planet and continued to do what he does best—investing in businesses. Through GHO Ventures in Princeton, NJ, he manages a collection of companies, including Common Ground Recycling, Eye Response Technologies, Princeton Power Systems, Power Survey Company and United Silicon Carbide, Inc.

In addition to his role as an angel investor, Olsen co-founded EPITAXX, Inc. in 1984 (sold in 1990 for $12 million) and Sensors Unlimited in 1992 (sold, re-purchased and then sold to Goodrich Corp. in 2005 for $60 million).

I talked to him recently about one of his investments—Power Survey, based in Kearny, NJ--which is in the business of increasing public safety by detecting stray voltage hazards in cities. Olsen is Power Survey’s chairman.


You’ve invested in a number of companies. What was it about Power Survey that interested you?

It was the people. I never invest in businesses; I invest in people. I helped spin this company out, and I am the major investor. What they focus on is a real safety issue. This problem exists in every major city, and it’s a public hazard.

Can you explain contact voltage?

It’s voltage that shouldn’t be there. Contact voltage means the wire is unintentionally in contact with a conductive object and a publicly accessible surface, like a fence. Usually, it’s caused by wires that have worn, often due to poor workmanship or run-down infrastructure. Some of the cables underground have been there for 100 years.

How dangerous can this be?

The most tragic event was in New York City in 2004—Jodie Lane was electrocuted while walking her dog in the East Village. That’s what drew attention to it, but dozens of people and dogs are shocked every year. We found 110 volts on a school fence one time. Jodie Lane was killed by 58.

How do you detect problems?

Electric field detection, which points a system operator to the location of a fault, so repairs can be made. It’s not all that different from a gas leak detector searching for leaks. Our detection system is used in a vehicle moving about 20 miles and hour, and it monitors electric field strength. It allows us to pick up stray voltages that are hazardous and shouldn’t be there, versus things like street lamps or a neon sign that are not problematic.

Why isn’t the general public more concerned about this?

This is something that no one wants to scream about. When an incident happens, that’s when we hear about it. But there’s still some dirty secrets. In Iraq, for example, there have been 18 electrocutions on bases. We’re not involved with that… yet. Our customers are mostly utility companies.

What does the average person need to look out for?

As a pedestrian, it’s hard to be aware of this stuff. You don’t want to freak out every time you see a manhole cover. If it’s in the winter or it’s wet out, you might try to avoid metal objects in the street. And animals—especially dogs—are more at risk because their wet paws come in direct contact with the metal.

Are you planning to go back to space?

I’d love to go. I’d like to go on Space Adventures’ trip to the moon. But I’d have to sell one of my companies.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure