OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Tom Kraft
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PeopleWise: Tom Kraft

Tom Kraft has had quite the career. The Director of Technology Ventures Development at Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has studied mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as mathematics and business, at prestigious institutions such as UCLA, Stanford and Rice. However, Tom always learned more from his pursuit of knowledge in ‘real world’ experiences.

I never particularly used anything I learned in school, small amount I guess.

Even before the age of the internet, Tom took advantage of the resources around him in order to quench his many curiosities. “It’s amazing how many publications are around. If you are really aggressive intellectually, you will just keep talking to people; you will get a lot of amazing information that may not be in the exact field you are working in, but it can give you some great ideas.” One of those people whom Tom Kraft talked to was Don Walsh, who taught Tom much about the physical and psychological stress of exploring the unknown as well as how to best deal with it. Along with Jacques Piccard, Don Walsh was the first person to venture down to the deepest point in the ocean: the Mariana Trench.

Over the course of his career, Tom has had the fortune to learn from many interesting people from many different walks of life. As an engineer working for Philco Ford, Tom was sent from South America to the coast of Africa to build control systems for the military. In the process of building these operating rooms, Tom became acquainted with several members of a Canadian aerospace company, including Chris Kraft, who eventually became NASA’s first flight director. At the time, Chris was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia to work on NASA’s lunar mission program. They discussed details of NASA’s plan to construct a control center, where such a facility might be located, and how the center would control the flight. After piquing his interest, Tom and his team made a bid to work on the Mission Control center. They won the contract.

The location of the control center was the subject of serious political debate. Several cities wanted to host Mission Control, but President Lyndon B. Johnson made a push for Houston, which effectively ended the debate. Both the city of Houston and Rice University were incredibly collaborative and cooperative in creating Mission Control. Donating both land and resources, NASA set up the control center in the swampy southeastern outskirts of Houston in a suburb called League City.

The process of the first lunar mission was once described by Tom as very “top-down”. There would be an elite meeting of astronauts and engineers in Washington D.C., in which they would determine a high-level goal, and then delegate the all-important detailed tasks. This occasionally led to poor planning and coordinating. At one point, they even had to demolish nearly all of the control center wall to install a display system. Whatever the challenge was, Tom and his team were able to find a way around it.

Working on mission control was not for the faint of heart. During the course of the project, about half of Tom’s engineers left due to stress and pressures of the mission. Most couldn’t handle knowing that their work would be responsible for keeping fellow humans alive in the mission to the moon. Just as Tom learned from Don Walsh, the psychological tolls of such an endeavor are just as great as the physical ones. While many of his co-workers turned to alcohol, drugs, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms, Tom embraced the challenge of the task and found joy in the overcoming whatever obstacle they encountered.

After finishing mission control in Houston, Tom relocated to Cape Canaveral as a technical expert for the back-up landing site. When Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon, he was sitting in a bar with his co-workers watching the fuzzy transmission displayed on the television. “It was an enormous feeling; everyone was just lifted up. They were invincible after that.” Tom however knew that it was a false confidence. His co-workers claimed they could make it to the moon and beyond, but he knew what limitations they would face. He knew that the amount of power necessary for deeper space exploration was not feasible with current technology, and the amount of resources to send a human there would be far greater.

Seeing that room for innovation was going to stall at NASA, Tom moved onto different ventures. Moving into the realm of oceanography and microbiology, he started his own company called Automated Systems, once again developing control systems, but this time for utility companies. After becoming “bored” with oceanography, Tom moved into the biomedical industry. While serving as the Vice President of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, Tom had learned enough about the business to start his own medical device company—he managed the company for nearly three decades before exiting to Fairway Medical Technologies in 2001.

Since then, Tom has served as a private consultant, a director at the Houston Technology Center, a lecturer in Management at Jones Graduate School of Business, and now as a Director at the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Tom’s curious mind has led him down many different paths and has allowed him to accomplish more than most could in several lifetimes. Tom’s best advice is be confident in your ability to go out and solve whatever problem you might face, even if you have no idea what to do at first.

At some point in your life, you’re gonna face stuff you don’t know. How are you going to do that? Some are tied up in the fear of the unknown. To me, I loved that. That was fun.