NASA's IPP provides leveraged technology for NASA's mission directorates, programs, and projects through investments and technology partnerships with industry, academia, government agencies, and national laboratories. As IPP Director, Doug Comstock also is responsible for directing the IPP portfolio of technology investments and partnering mechanisms, including Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR), Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR), the Centennial Challenges, and the Innovative Partnerships Seed Fund. He also is responsible for intellectual property management and technology transfer that provides benefits to society from the nation's investment
in NASA's space and aeronautics missions.
NASA Tech Briefs: What is the function of the Innovative Partnerships Program within NASA?
Doug Comstock: We work technology in both directions, into and out of NASA. We identify sources of technology that will meet the needs of NASA's mission directorates and their programs and projects. There are several mechanisms we have for doing that. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program are the largest in terms of dollar value. There also is the Centennial Challenges, which is NASA's prize program, and something we started recently called the IPP Seed Fund, in which we seek cost-shared technology development for technologies of common interest between NASA and outside organizations. The fourth major area is through partnerships, where we can identify technologies that are of mutual interest and have partnerships to advance the technology. These are what we call "spin-in" technologies, or funded technologies.
For the "spin-out," that's where our Technology Transfer program comes in. Part of what IPP does is intellectual property management for NASA and licensing of NASA technologies. We work to document NASA Technology Reports (NTRs) – those technologies that appear in NASA Tech Briefs – and then documenting successful cases of technology transfer such as those that appear in NASA's Spinoff publication.
What we try to do is match technology needs with technology capabilities both into and out of NASA.
NTB: Other than NASA Tech Briefs, how do you get the message out to the public sector and U.S. industry that NASA has these technologies available?
Comstock: A lot of it is attending and giving presentations at various conferences and symposia with a cross-section of various industries other than aerospace. We try to identify technical gatherings where it would be beneficial for us to get that message across. The primary interest for us is really the spin-in, where we can engage some of these other communities that may have technologies that they're already using that would be relevant to what NASA's trying to do so we can leverage what they've done and not have to invest as much or at all in developing those technologies. We do some of those things through partnerships as well.
One partnership in the IPP Seed Fund – we currently have 29 Seed Fund projects – is a joint project with Caterpillar to develop autonomously operated earth-moving equipment. NASA's interest in that is autonomous operation on the Lunar surface for preparing sites for habitation and landing. Caterpillar's interest is in safer operation of their vehicles. Worldwide, they lose about one operator per month through accidents. From their perspective, they're looking at building safety in – putting sensors in and having control algorithms that would detect a hazardous situation and stop things before an accident happens. The Department of Defense (DoD) is also interested for dropping a big Caterpillar into a hostile region and having a clear landing area where there is no soldier on board to worry about getting shot. It's an interesting partnership that has a number of applications and the folks at Johnson Space Center working on that are tied in with those at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who are doing the autonomous control of the Mars rovers.
NTB: Is there a network within NASA through which you match up the technologies that are needed with those you have found outside the agency?
Comstock: Each mission directorate does their own technology planning and needs assessment, and we have a Chief Technologist who works with all the mission directorates and helps communicate across IPP what those needs are and also provides the role of integrating across the agency to look for commonalities or areas for mission directorates to work together where they already may not be doing so. We have regular interaction with the mission directorate representatives and one of the main areas where we get insight into what their needs are is through the process of preparing the SBIR solicitation every year.
NTB: How can readers of NASA Tech Briefs and other engineers go about working with the IPP to commercialize technologies they have, or license NASA technologies?
Comstock: In terms of licensing, once they identify a technology they're interested in, they would contact the IPP chief at the relevant NASA center, and work at the center level. (Editor's note: See page 70 of this issue for a complete list of NASA IPP center offices.) We have a Headquarters office for IPP, but most of the real work is done at the centers. We have an office at each of the 10 field centers. In terms of providing technologies, one of the ways to get funding for that is through the SBIR/STTR program. If they have a technology that would be of use for some particular application at NASA, they could contact us at Headquarters or whatever the appropriate center would be. Part of our role is to be a facilitator, connecting technology capabilities from outside the agency to what the needs are in terms of the agency. We are in the process of revamping our Web site and expect that when that's done, it will be a valuable resource to help make those connections
One of the things we've been asked to do is act as a single point of entry for those in the emerging commercial space sector who are interested in doing business with NASA. We can act as a facilitator to connect them to the right people. The way it is now, they may have to talk to eight different people at five different centers, and we want to make that easier.
NTB: Does the IPP manage the intellectual property within NASA – what NASA engineers are inventing and how it gets into the marketplace?
Comstock: We don't define what the engineers are inventing but we are responsible for that process of encouraging them to document their inventions through NTRs and working with general counsel community to decide which inventions to patent. We work with the NASA Inventions and Contributions Board (ICB) and the Chief Engineer's office to recognize those inventions. We also work with the ICB to communicate what the technology needs are for the agency, such as putting together the SBIR solicitation and our work with the mission directorates. We communicate that out to the research community within NASA so that there is open communication about what our needs are and research topics that would be of benefit for NASA.
NTB: Can you explain more about NASA's Centennial Challenges Program?
Comstock: We currently have seven competitions that are fully funded and many of those are multi-year competitions. Of those seven, some will continue out on an annual basis until 2010 or 2011. In addition, we may get funds appropriated to conduct new competitions. We have a request in for 2008 and the out years at about $4 million per year to enter into new Centennial Challenge competitions. Most of the prizes we have now are relevant to the return to the Moon and planned missions to Mars. There was an astronaut glove challenge we had earlier this year, and we had our first winner in the Centennial Challenge where we gave away a $200,000 prize.
For more information, visit NASA's IPP Web site .