When the U.S. Congress created NASA in 1958, it sought to ensure that the Nation saw returns on its investments in aerospace research. It, therefore, wrote provisions into the Space Act Agreement that formed the Agency requiring that NASA share its technological advances and engineering expertise with the American public. Since that time, the NASA scientific prowess that sends people and equipment up into space has also come back down to Earth, in the form of products and processes that make everyday life better all around the globe.
Through a variety of methods, industry can work with the Space Agency to access the cutting-edge resources and advanced technologies created as a result of the Nation’s investment in space. For companies that do not need NASA-developed technology or advanced test facilities but still want to leverage some of the brain power of NASA’s engineering teams to solve a design problem in their product, NASA funds the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program, more commonly referred to as “SATOP.”
SATOP, administered by Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, is a cooperative program between Florida, New Mexico, New York, and Texas. It brings together more than 55 space companies, universities, colleges, and NASA centers to make the expertise garnered through the Nation’s investment in space exploration available to small businesses. SATOP finds professionals within these organizations who volunteer their time and expertise in solving various design and engineering challenges.
Any type of small business is encouraged to submit a technical challenge to SATOP. If SATOP is able to assist, the small business is provided with up to 40 hours of free technical assistance from a scientist or engineer in the Space Program.
Tyrell Inc., a Houston-based medical technologies company, was able to access engineering support for a problem with redesigning a heating element for a hand-held acne-fighting device. The device was born of necessity, when Tyrell founder Robert Conrad, now the company’s chief operating officer, was working at a biological testing firm. One of the experiments he was conducting involved working with proteins, which included growing bacterial colonies, shocking them with heat to kill the bacteria, and then extracting the proteins. Conrad, who had been plagued with adult acne and was looking for a solution, recalled while conducting these experiments that acne itself is caused by the bacteria, P. acnes, and wondered about the possibility of shocking pimples with heat.
At home in his garage, he began experimenting with time and temperature curves to develop a device that would shock and kill acne-causing bacteria. He built a working prototype and was content to stop there and keep the device for personal use. Family and friends, however, took interest in the device, and each wanted one. Conrad saw the obvious market potential and the need that people, like him, had for this device.
While the prototype proved feasible, the design still needed some tweaking; the device was cumbersome and expensive to produce. Conrad was introduced to SATOP through the Houston Technology Center, a local technology business accelerator with a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center.