Earth-shaking entrepreneur

Spring 2017
Branden Christensen ’06 in the lab, building his hand-held seismograph called Raspberry Shake.

Branden Christensen ’06 in the lab, building his hand-held seismograph called Raspberry Shake.

Branden Christensen ’06

Last spring, Branden Christensen ’06 was living on the slopes of a remote volcano in Panama, working with colleagues to sell seismology equipment to governments all over the world, when he and his team had an earth-shaking idea. What if they could create a robust consumer market for home earthquake-detection devices? By empowering ordinary people to contribute to real-time public scientific observation, they realized, they’d be able to build a network of sensors that could outperform even the most sophisticated government systems.

“The paradigm shift is that you and me, your mom, or your brother can be part of this citizen-scientist project and do real seismology,” said Christensen, by phone from his office in Volcán, Panama. “This technology is going to change the rules.”

Last year, Christensen launched a Kickstarter campaign for a product called Raspberry Shake that costs $375. “We figured that we could use the technology that we currently have for observatories, dumb it down a little bit, and then create a seismograph for under $500, which might be interesting to hobbyists,” he said.

The public response has exceeded Christensen’s wildest hopes. The Kickstarter fundraiser reached its goal in 18 hours. In Raspberry Shake’s first few months on the market, he shipped more than 700 units to more than 50 countries. Now, Christensen is confident that his product will shake up the field of seismology.

“In the past, earthquake detection was always done by geophysical institutes with big government money,” he explained. “If you wanted to know where it shook and how hard, those networks cost millions of dollars a year to maintain. With Raspberry Shake, we’ve created an international network with hundreds of sensors.”

Each sensor in Raspberry Shake’s network belongs to a hobbyist who has agreed to share data from their unit with the broader community. And there is no limit to how many sensors will eventually be included in Raspberry Shake’s crowdsourced data network. If all goes according to plan, Christensen and his partners may soon be the operators of one of the best, most geographically detailed libraries of observed seismological data in the world. “There will probably be more sensors in our network than are in the largest international collaborative network between geophysical institutes,” Christensen said.

When Christensen arrived at Colgate in 2002, he had no idea that he wanted to study geology. He owes that — and his career — to the mentorship of Professor Karen Harpp, who gave Christensen a job in her research lab to help him pay his way on a Colgate-sponsored trip to Hawaii to study volcanoes.

That led to more opportunities — a summer trip to Iceland to map lava flows, then a journey to seismically active Chile and Ecuador to present at geology conferences. After college, he settled in Ecuador, volunteering at an observatory near Tungurahua volcano, which was exploding daily.

These days, Christensen owns several companies in Latin America, including OSOP, formerly called Observatorio Sismológico del Occidente de Panamá and now known only by its acronym. Before Raspberry Shake, OSOP’s primary line of business was delivering professional-grade earthquake-detection equipment to government geophysical institutes at a fraction of the typical price — as low as $5,000 per unit.

Although Raspberry Shake is a simpler device than those Christensen would sell to a government, that doesn’t mean government scientists are looking down their noses at the consumer-grade product. “Ironically, we have renewed interest from the geophysical institutes we’ve always serviced,” Christensen said. “They look at Raspberry Shake, and they know they’re going to be able to have higher station density — with the same amount of funds — which will change the way they go about monitoring earthquakes.”

— Mike Agresta

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