Shanti Rao

About Shanti Rao

Physicist, serial entrepreneur, musician. Transplanted Seattle native. Learning how to build spacecraft. Really.

I am a senior engineer at JPL. I have a PhD. in physics from the California Institute of Technology, two Bacherlors degrees from the UW and am a co-founder and principal of Raosoft, Inc. I also play the piano, grow plants and enjoy Ultimate Frisbee.

How I Start Companies

My fastest-growing and most profitable business ever was the store the back of Ellen Nottingham's classroom at T.T. Minor Elementary School. I bought a box of pencils at a store near our bus stop, and Cy Keener and I sold them the next day at school for 15 cents each.

The next week, we diversified into erasers, pens, and paper. A month later, after expanding into higher margin, about 3 weeks of reinvestment, and annoying pink things that Cy claimed that girls would buy (he was right). We were netting about $20 per week, which was back when $20 meant something.

The partnership worked pretty well: Cy had a good idea of what peple would buy, and I was stingy with the money.

Initial investment: five dollars.

Read more: Lesson 1. Don't get a MBA

Business Development

This is just about the startup deal. Running an organization in which stakeholders are empowered to grow and contribute is a different story.

Business development is not selling a product. It's predicting what people will want, and then figuring out a way to deliver it. Success requires more than technology. Development is applied game theory, because for an idea to catch on, it has to be in everyone's best interests. As with any game worth playing, you start from a losing position. If you started in a winning position, someone else would have already done it, right? So, as with any game (in the Von Neumann-Morganstern sense), you can change the rules, change the facts, or change the players.

Most of the players aren't trying to manipulate the game, so all you have to do is let them know they're playing, and they'll find the Nash equilibrium on their own.

Read more: The Game of Business Development

Serial entrepreneur

Starting a business? Have a new idea? I'd love to hear about it!.

Maybe I can point you to someone who has similar interests. Maybe I can help you define a good business plan that'll save you from losing your shirt.

Good questions to ask yourself are: Is there an easier way to earn a living? Has it already been done before? Is your business idea suited to your risk tolerance? Is running a business compatible with your values?

Check out the business I helped start:

  • Raosoft, Inc.. Profit = Revenue - Expenses. Keep your expenses low.


Musique du Cour (Badinage, Ballade, Menuet, Scherzo) by Jean Francaix performed by Melissa Todd, Lilach Somberg, Shanti Rao.

Khatchaturian trio performed by Melissa Todd, Julie Casperson Brewer, Shanti Rao.


JSDB is a lightweight Linux/Windows JavaScript shell for gluing together databases, XML, web sites, and email. "a superbly powerful and extensible environment for managing batch tasks." If you like Perl, you'll probably like JSDB too.

Raosoft, Inc. was a pioneer in filling out forms and surveys on computers. Raosoft Survey was the first nonprogrammable database that automatically generated a form interface. EZSurvey® was the first web survey software (by two weeks), and introduced such innovations as the Previous button, questions arranged in tables, write-in-text with ###-###-#### that automatically put the dashes in the right places, calling them write-in-text instead of "character input fields". and error messages that told you which required questions you needed to fill out without making you go back and submit the form again. Also, we called our customers "customers," "people," or "Ronald" (in one particular person's case) instead of "users".

Driver code for daptive optics. Buy the 128-channel MEMS driver circuit from Alta Via Technologies.

Video Authentication Steganography
A system for traceable photography. Provisional patent application filed by Caltech on Jan 2001, abandoned Jan 2002, placing my rights to the invention in the public domain. A professor at Princeton filed a similar patent in Sep 2000.

Scope interface
Talk to your Tektronix digital scope through a serial port.

System Plotting Interactive Tool is a graphical Matlab program for plotting Bode, Nichols, and Nyquist spectra of Simulink models (wihout having to use the command line interface).

Calculate suspended interferometer mirror resonance frequencies in Mathematica. This is based on the complete linearized Lagrangian for a single mirror. It is more accurate than the SUSRES Fortran program, but less accurate than Mark Barton's model.

Thermal noise plotter
Calculate thermal noise spectra for LIGO mirrors. Uses the latest (but not necessarily correct) theoretical models.

Mode matching calculator
Propagate Gaussian beams through lenses, cavities, and optics in an Excel spreadsheet.


Current project: Direct imaging of extrasolar planets.

Thesis: Mirror Thermal Noise in Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Detectors. Selected portions: Thermal noise encyclopedia, cross-polarized interferometer experiments, Interferometers, circuits, polarization noise, and lab checklists.

Gravitational lensing by binary black holes
Qualitative visualization of gravitational lensing of starlight by nearby black holes. Gravitational redshift and retardation are not included in the model. Windows.

Measuring zero better than ever before at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO)