He’s kind of a mad scientist in the best of ways. He’s a founder and CTO here at Exo and for a while he even took on the role of facilities manager. By facilities manager I mean that Mike took on the task of acquiring staplers, chairs, etc.
Dr. Mike Bantel is a sort of great that comes along every once in a while. His thoughts and ideas are so complex that it might take a few times before most understand him, but that is because he is constantly coming up with new innovative ideas to change the world. This goes beyond his work at Exo and during our chat he spent a good portion of the time explaining to me all of the intricate house projects he has. He doesn’t give up so easily. Not only was he so readily eager to be interviewed, but he came back for a second sit down. I am always perplexed by people who innovate and the fact that Mike takes his work home with him too speaks volumes on his drive and commitment to this company.Tapping into a small portion of his intellect will hopefully inspire, if not motivate those of you who read this to dive in head first just like Mike.
Thanks to Mike everyone will now know new, innovative ways to use Dominos!
What sparked your interest in Physics and how did you get to the point you are at now?
Sparked my interest in Physics? Oh that’s a good question. Back in high school I excelled at math. I really liked math, but then the math got very picky about how you have to do things. You have to show every detail of the proof, it just got to tedious. In Physics, the mathematical details weren’t questioned. I was free, any reasonable approximations became acceptable solutions, it almost felt like cheating (not in the academic integrity sense), and this behavior of slightly abusing math while using physical insight was actually encouraged, so that’s why I selected Physics as my major. Yeah, then I could just focus on finding a solution rather than spending all my time explaining how I got there.
Would you care to explain the challenges you had to overcome to get your PhD?
There were several hurdles. First, during my undergraduate years at Cal Poly, there is a writing exam everyone had to pass to graduate. I think I took the test six times (I think you are only allowed to take it six times) so fortunately I passed it on the sixth time, and I actually did well. My problem was that I was really trying to find the best answer to their question. The question would be something like “What was the greatest invention of this century”. I put too much time into really thinking about it; whereas, they just wanted to see my writing skills. I could have said tennis shoes where obviously the best invention of the 20th century and then back it up lots of silly but seemly good reasons. I forgot what the exact essay question was, but I do recall just making up a bunch of supporting reasons that sounded good but were not completely valid.
The other challenge, or close call I had was at UC Irvine and passing the qualify exam. You only get to take it twice, and I took it twice. The first time, I wasn’t really prepared, it was a hot summer that year and it made studying difficult. The following year I studied in the physical science building that was air conditioned. I also had the last 10 years of past qualifying exam questions; that probably also helped.
What made you try again?
I had nothing else to do and nothing else to lose. I studied more for it and it all went great. I even walked out early on one of the exams. I solved all the problems, what more could I possibly do? I felt like I was at my peak when I took those qualifiers.
Tell us five things people might not know about you?
I used to do Origami which I thought was neat, but I haven’t done it recently. At one time I liked seeing how small I could fold an Origami bird; the smallest I got was starting with a 12×12 millimeter square, or 1/2 x 1/2 inch. John Montroll, a mathematician, made all these designs. For every animal you can list there’s a way to make it using a single square sheet of paper. And the result, if done properly, is easily identified as that animal – no kidding, see for yourself, it’s amazing. I also like stacking dominos, as a kid I would put one domino upright and see if could then balance all the other dominos on top it. The other domino stacking game I played was separating two dominos and building a bridge between them, out of dominos of course. When I’m in Jonathan’s office I see these toy building blocks, I always have to resist the temptation of playing with them. Other hobbies? Well now I mostly just work at Exo and work on my house. I am always thinking about house projects. There’s a lot to think about. I once put a 45 foot tube underneath my house to drain the backyard to the front which was a challenge. The brick pattern in my atrium was randomly designed. There are lots of ways to just lay down 4″x8″ brick to fill a 10×11 foot area. I wrote a program that generated random patterns and then selected the “best” pattern based upon a cost function I made up that had a penalty function for having too many bricks in row. To this day I don’t think anyone has ever noticed the bricks. And everyone does notice the curves of the retaining wall. I have a rope swing in my house for the kids and adults. After several years, I’m happy with it. I went through 5 ropes: 1 inch cotton, 1.5 inch manilla, 1.5 inch boating rope, 1.5 heavy training rope, and finally a rope I made by braiding eight 25 ft strands of 1/2″ cotton sash cord (that’s what jump ropes used to be made of when I was in school). There are other projects such as painting the roof white, suspending shade cloths, and LED lighting, but I won’t go into those details.
Were you worried at all starting Exo?
I loaned Exo $50,000 to help start Exo. Holly and I were laid off from SPARTA, and we started working at Exo. It costs money to start a new company like buying computers and leasing a place to work. I remember seeing Doug and Holly spending [their money as well] to get Exo going. I didn’t worry about if I wouldn’t get the money back; at least I had a job and I always felt it was going to work out in the end. Plus, when we started Exo we had work lined up starting the first day, so it didn’t seem as risky. However, Exo did have a few rough times. I was happy to see how everyone pulled together, it was more than just team work that got us through those months.
How do you feel Exo has changed since the start in 2008?
It’s different having more people working at Exo, [but] I’m happy about it. I feel like Exo is growing so fast, sometimes I imagine meeting someone at an airport or a technical conference and it will turn out that we both work at Exo and had never met [each other] before. We cherry pick all of the good people so it makes work fun being part of an all-star team. The company has also evolved, all of the things we imagined when we first started Exo, [such as] how we were going to do things differently and better, well it doesn’t always work out that way. Work has gotten so busy, I see Business Operations slammed with a lot of work and I’m so happy I can just walk away and do technical work in my office. I used to eat lunch with Holly and Doug every day, now they’re too busy or in some other state. I like going to lunch with everyone, now the only difficultly is not trying not to leave anyone behind.
What do you think about the ESpOC?
I think we did everything right in developing ESpOC. Did I think it was going to evolve to this? No, I did not. It kind of started in 2007 and 2008 when we went to AMOS in an attempt to get information on transitioning our MDA work to SSA. One thing we realized is that we could not get any data; no one was going to give us anything, we were shut out. So one motivating reason to start ESpOC was so that we could collect our own data to test out our own algorithms. I also think Doug really wanted some type of hardware besides a computer. In 2011, Bill was taking images of Jupiter with a digital SLR camera and lens, and I was going to try to stack frames to get a higher resolution. In the photo, Jupiter’s moons could be clearly seen. Jupiter’s moons are bright so the exposure time can be very short. I also had a digital camera and was also able to image Jupiter’s moons. For fun I did one long 20 sec exposure to see the streaking stars. When I looked at the photo I saw the streaked stars, but I also small blurred stationary sources. I thought hey the camera was pointed approximately in the direction of the GEO belt, the sources are not moving in the Earth frame, the integration time was long so dim objects might pop out, seems like they must be GEO satellites. Turns out they were just bad pixels. A short time later, Doug did image a GEO satellite. I recall Doug showing us a few frames in Bill’s office and we were all looking at the persistent point source blur on the image, it was exciting. From there Doug just kept buying more scopes and setting higher goals; and Bill was constantly upgrading the software. Doug, initially spent a lot of his own money buying equipment, and at the company some thought perhaps too much profit was being used on this science project. At the time I never knew if we were going to make any money; but, I always thought this was worthwhile effort, [and] we sure did learn a lot.
What do you feel your greatest accomplishment has been in your career?
I measured the Newtonian Gravitational Constant. That was big. Then there’s a function in the MHT algorithm I made which quickly finds a solution or approximate solution to a NP-complete problem, I’m proud of that also. One day maybe we’ll figure out another use for it. Right now I am looking at the ESpOC detections of rocket bodies and I’m trying to figure out why they have small maneuvers that occur around the equinox, and when that mystery is solved I will happy. After a few weeks though, it won’t seem like a big deal anymore and I’ll be onto the next mystery or challenge to consume my thoughts.