Shanti Rao

About Shanti Rao

Physicist & serial entrepreneur

I provide strategic consulting relating to new business models and new technologies to solve big problems. Recent and current work includes

I have a PhD. in physics from the California Institute of Technology, Bachelor's degrees in physics and astronomy from the UW. I co-founded and bootstrapped Raosoft, Inc. for 15 years, then worked as a senior engineer in the Instruments Division at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab for 16 years.

I also play the piano, grow plants and help run a youth sports league, AYSO Region 13 in Pasadena, CA.

I used to wake up early, before the sun rose, and make 30 minutes of cold calls to the east coast before leaving to catch the bus for high school. Go ahead and reach out to me.

How to be a good first-time soccer coach

My kids play soccer, so I get to coach their teams and help run Pasadena's AYSO club. Here's some of what I've learned about coaching:

If the league organizers did a good job, you'll lose half your games. Half the kids you're coaching are below average. Actually, more than half, because the best players are driving all over the state in a fancy club team. So, for your team, success isn't winning, it's helping everyone (including the referees) to have fun so they return next year.

Strategies I've learned from coaching my kids' soccer teams

Investing in new technology

Follow along on substack

Part of my job at JPL was to promote and advance new technology. Of course, the usual problem with new fancy things is that nobody wants them. Or, as they say in Silicon Valley, "the business plan doesn't close." I use a one-page improved Heilmeier catechism to describe why it's worth the time and effort to invest in inventing something cool.

I invest my own money and time in deep tech companies, mostly at pre-seed stage. The theme is, "overlooked critical infrastructure". The portfolio is: Titan Aerospace (sold to Google), OmniEarth (1st investor, sold to EagleView), HeliosWire (sold to EchoStar), ATLAS Space Networks (1st investor), Weather Stream (1st investor), EarthOptics, LEOLabs, HawkEye 360, SkyWatch, fuse, Carbice, Olis Robotics, Hydrosat, HearHere (not deep tech but I would have invented it myself if I weren't so lazy), R3-IOT, Aquaai, Precursor, Iris Dynamics, Pixxel, Rivelin Robotics. I regret passing on SpinLaunch, Momentus, ... actually, that's it for regrets. Can't win 'em all. Go ahead. Pick up the phone and cold-call me. It'll be a welcome relief from the auto warranty scams.

Many of these companies follow Big Data From Space Playbook. to plan their strategy, and the Application Readiness Customer Journey. Paying customers are the best way to demonstrate demand. For a B2B technology company, use the 4-stage Statement of Work to plan a path from feasibility study to recurring revenue.

Steve Blank says a startup company is a temporary organization created to conduct a set of experiments that search for a business model that is repeatable and scalable. You should listen to him.

1. A venture fund invests in 10 startups, hoping that one will be big enough to provide substantial returns to their investors.
1a. Investing $100k on an uncapped SAFE in anyone with a pulse seems to be more effective than picking winners.
2. In the startups that I have seen succeed, the team experimented with 5 - 10 different products and markets, and one became really, really big.
2a. Your first few guesses are probably wrong.
2b. Customers sometimes know what they want. Lean Startup is about failing fast by interviewing them
3. Startups are marketing companies, even if they are hardware companies.
3a. Unique technology gives you a temporary barrier to entry.
4. Each product experiment by a venture-backed startup needs to be capable of returning the value of the entire venture fund.

Raosoft was bootstrapped. We experimented with 10 new products or major features a year. Usually, one would take off. Risk capital allows entrepreneurs to conduct these experiments in parallel and capture market share before Facebook/Microsoft/Apple imitates it.

When you take money from an investor, your investor's business plan becomes your business plan: each experiment must have the potential to return the entire value of the venture fund. Fortunately, anything in space can affect everyone on Earth. What would you do from space to deliver $1 of value per month for each of the 7 billion people living on Earth?

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

The Mad Max Theory of Project Management

  1. There is a goal, and we are moving toward it on a flaming bus.
  2. We are going Somewhere, but for now, we are in the middle of Nowhere.
  3. There is a driver. She's not quite sure where we are going, so she's moving us very fast in what we think is the correct general direction.
  4. A lookout watches for evidence of the location of the goal. The search space continually narrows.
  5. The engine is on fire.
  6. Someone is fixing it. We trust her to do that, because we are busy throwing sharp things at the people next to us, unless she asks for help, in which case we help her right away.
  7. The rest of the bus is on fire, too. We might get around to fixing that. Or not. Someone is watching it and will probably do something if it gets worse.
  8. The horde saw our smoke. They are chasing us. We must move very fast to get there first or they will stop us or cut us off.
  9. If you're at all close to us, you're going to get hit by something. You don't want to be beside us. You definitely don't want to be close behind. It's not particularly healthy to be in front of us, either.
  10. In fact, good places to be are a) on the bus, b) very far away, c) waiting for us at the goal, d) moving the goal.

Bringing a new technology into a new market

  1. Most people will only do one of these at a time.
  2. Willingness to do both gives you moats.
  3. Use as little money as possible to prove that it works and that it makes money.
  4. Then use as much money as you need to scale as fast as you can before you lose your moats.
  5. Don't stop innovating.

Shanti's raytracer

A fast, accurate, and precise raytracing code, based on Bill Breckinridge's dyadic formulation of conic sections. Unlike traditional optical design programs like CODE V or Zemax, Shanti's raytracer describes all coordinates in 3D, so you can apply 6DOF mechanical distortions and see what happens.

This improves on JPL's MACOS by being in MATLAB instead of FORTRAN, is faster (especially if you have a GPU and want to trace a million rays in parallel), and it comes with nifty visualization programs. I've rearranged the order computations to reduce the effects of rounding errors, so you can model beams coming from the surface of the a planet, and propagate them all the way to a telescope in space. I don't know why you'd want to do that ... but you could. Note: it doesn't handle propagation time and relative velocity (yet).

It was developed to analyze distortions of JWST's optics, based on insights by Bill Breckinridge (the guy who rediscovered quaternions) and Dave Redding at JPL. After giving up on migrating their FORTRAN code, I reimplemented it from scratch in both JavaScript and MATLAB/Octave, taking advantag of vector operations suitable for GPU acceleration, while refactoring the computations to make them less susceptible to rounding errors.

You would use it to calculate how a given set of perturbations, from thermal expansion, misalignment, or whatever would affect an observation. See the HabEx example, which calculates tolerances for a 4m segmented telescope. JPL released the code as open source. During the integration and test of an optical instrument, you would use it to calculate the effects of the as-built variations and misalignments, because "better" is the enemy of "good enough."

It also handles deformations such as aspheres, Zernike polynomials, and arbitrary meshes (that don't have to be on a rectangular grid) that you might get from a finite-element model. It also handles diffraction gratings on arbitrary curved surfaces -- even for rays coming in at weird angles!

If you want to research polarization effects, define the rays.local vector, and watch how it rotates at every reflection and refraction. This is also handled correctly for curved diffraction gratings.

Shanti's Raytracer was developed in part with US Government sponsorship and is released as open source by JPL.

Google Apps Scripts

Did you know that you can make Google Sheets act like a database? Well, sort of. Go ahead and use my Apps Script Database Library for the Table Object to abstract reads and writes on a spreadsheet. If you're running a youth soccer program, you might like the AYSO menu plugin that adds team-generation scripts to a division roster. You can do neat things like assign players to the coach who lives closest to them, or randomly generate balanced teams using a nonlinear optimization iterative algorithm.


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.

Music

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.

Innovations

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.

SPIT
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).

SusRes
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.

Research

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)

LIGO