Over the course of its history, NASA has nurtured partnerships with the private sector to facilitate the transfer of NASA-developed technologies. The benefits of these partnerships have reached throughout the economy and around the globe. The resulting commercial products have contributed to the development of services and technologies in the fields of health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, environmental resources, computer technology, and industry.
The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created NASA called for the new agency to disseminate its technology for public benefit. In accordance with NASA’s obligations, the Innovative Partnerships Office (IPO), on behalf of NASA, facilitates the transfer of NASA technologies for commercial application and other national benefit.
NASA Tech Briefs spoke with the IPO chiefs from the ten NASA field centers across the country to find out how they each help businesses, entrepreneurs, and local communities engage with NASA through technology partnerships, licensing, and outreach programs.
The unique facilities and research capabilities at each field center help the Agency better address which areas can be expanded from applications solely in spaceflight and exploration, out to the commercial community in the forms of spinoff and dual-use technologies. Said David Makufka, Manager of the Technology Transfer Office at Kennedy Space Center (Florida), “We’ve categorized our research into eight capability areas that support not only the Kennedy programs and missions, but also feed into the Agency technology roadmaps to address the gaps in those roadmaps. The capability areas help us identify where we want to make technology development investments that are of key interest to Kennedy where we have unique expertise and capabilities within the Agency.”
For example, according to Ramona Travis, Ph.D., Chief Technologist at Stennis Space Center (Mississippi), because Stennis’ test processes produce so much energy, they are interested in finding “unique and interesting ways of harvesting and capturing energy, converting it, saving it, and then reusing it in other forms to power sensors and the like. There will be applicability to other aspects of NASA as well as to the commercial sector.”
Dual-use technologies also play a major role in R&D at Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX). Jack James, Lead for Tech Transfer and Intellectual Property Management, explained that, “We look at the dynamics of systems and some of them have applicability for entry, descent, and landing. There are a lot of systems associated with that to detect hazards, and those things may be applicable to autonomous automobiles.”
Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH), which focuses on high-temperature materials and composites, communications, electronics, sensors, and energy and propulsion, has developed dozens of technologies in these key areas that have led to successful commercial products. Explained Kim Dalgleish-Miller, Chief of the Innovation Projects Office, “Our award-winning technologies enable greater safety and engine efficiency in aircraft, safer joint replacements, reliable communications during disasters, and minimally invasive, real-time health monitoring.”
There are several technology directions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, CA) that are necessary to enable the next generation of science missions. “There are many areas that JPL considers strategically important to be sure we have the technologies we need for the next generation of spacecraft,” said Indrani Graczyk, Manager of the Commercial Program Office. “An example of one that has commercial applications is sensing technologies. Probably the most famous is the CMOS imager, which is now the standard technology for cellphone cameras. It was developed here in the 1990s, the researchers started a company, and the technology was widely adopted.”
Technology and Economic Development
A major role that each NASA field center plays in the technology transfer process involves working with local businesses, academia, entrepreneurs, and other government agencies to get NASA technologies licensed and turned into viable products. Often, representatives from the NASA field centers work closely with economic development organizations in their local area or state to access NASA technology. This is also accomplished with technologies the Agency sponsors through NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
“We partner with economic development organizations to facilitate technology transfer for commercial and noncommercial needs. Our approach is to leverage respective processes and programs to match technologies, capabilities, or facilities with needs of industry, academia, and other public interest,” explained Nona Cheeks, Chief of the Innovative Partnerships Program Office at Goddard Space Center (Greenbelt, MD). “Our fundamental business goal is to optimize awareness and opportunity to utilize new technology advancements, expertise, and where appropriate, facilities to advance new products as well as provide enhanced solutions to common challenges,” she said.
Marshall Space Flight Center’s Technology Transfer Office (Alabama) strives to help both aerospace and nonaerospace companies address their technology needs by acquainting them with Marshall’s technologies developed for space applications. In addition, according to Terry Taylor, Assistant Manager and Technology Transfer Lead in the Technology Development and Transfer Office, the idea is to “bridge the gap to find solutions for commercial applications. We are looking at strengthening ties with local, regional, and state economic development organizations to help make companies aware of our technology portfolio to address their needs.”
Finding out what those specific technology needs are is another function of the IPO. At Dryden Flight Research Center (California), the IPO office is aligned with NASA’s emphasis to expand the applications and accelerate transfer to the commercial sector of the innovations and discoveries made during work on NASA missions. Said Ronald M. Young, IPO Chief at Dryden, “IPO works with center innovators in partnership opportunities to accelerate technology maturation and proofs-ofconcept that will attract external partners and customers for broader technology utilization.”
Facilitating partnerships with startup companies and local businesses often involves NASA experts providing initial consultation, which can lead to joint development. A top priority at JPL, according to Graczyk, is facilitating partnerships that maximize the value of the nation’s investment in the space program. “That includes a wide spectrum of partnerships, joint technology development, and licensing. Some of the technologies developed here spawned entire industries and have provided a lot of societal benefits.”
“We routinely partner with local industry and academia on co-development projects,” said Dalgleish-Miller. “Over the past five years, Glenn re search has resulted in over 600 new technologies, and Glenn has performed research and development utilizing hundreds of Space Act Agreements for a variety of public and private customers. And our SBIR/STTR programs have helped local industries launch a myriad of products and secure additional investment in the region.”
Transfer of NASA technology occasionally makes a circuitous route back to the field center where it was developed. Kennedy Space Center’s Emulsified Zero Valent Iron (EZVI) technology is one example. Said Makufka, “EZVI groundwater remediation technology was developed at Kennedy, and it’s being utilized through our licensee on a number of other sites here in the local area. So the technology developed at Kennedy was licensed through a licensee, and has come back to have benefits on the local environmental scene.”
Said Kathy Dezern, Intellectual Property Manager at Langley Research Center (Hampton, VA), there is a need to create awareness of NASA technologies, “and also deliver a streamlined process for companies to access our intellectual property.”
One of the ways NASA is helping companies access its intellectual property is through the new NASA Technology Transfer Portal, a one-stop shop for information on licensing NASA technologies, working with individual centers, and engaging NASA experts. Developed at Ames Research Center (California), the portal “gives businesses direct access to NASA technologies, and the ability to search our catalogs and portfolios to seek out licensing opportunities on their own,” said David Morse, Chief of the Technology Partnerships Division at Ames.
“It is vital that the public is aware of the breadth and depth of the technologies developed by NASA, and the portal allows NASA to quickly and effectively communicate to the nation what technologies are available for commercialization. After that initial contact, there is a lot of hard work that needs to be done. That’s where our office still needs to put the rubber to the road,” said Graczyk.
Dalgleish-Miller added, “My priority is to leverage our expertise, capabilities, and technologies to help others solve problems and, in doing so, make a difference and get the biggest bang from taxpayer-funded research dollars. In the end, I like to solve problems, and that is what this program is all about — helping people solve problems through new innovations utilizing Glenn Research Center’s vast technical expertise.”
Spreading NASA’s Message
Solving the problem of conveying the importance of technology commercialization to the American public and to industry is a focus of NASA’s as an agency, and of the IPO chiefs as well. When asked how NASA can best spread vits message about the societal benefits of technology transfer, most IPO chiefs agreed that focusing on the individual successes is key.
“The agency has struggled with ways to convey and strengthen that message to American industry and the general public,” said Taylor. “We are supporting the agency’s initiatives to make industry aware of NASA’s technologies that taxpayers fund,” he stated.
“We have to focus on our success stories. Those stories are key and get the attention of the taxpayer. When we can describe a technology that was developed to meet NASA mission needs, and then relate that same technology to a commercial product that impacts their daily lives, that’s key,” said Dezern.
Travis agrees that it’s all about the successes. “Given the present climate in the country today where people want to decrease the size of government vs. increasing it, I think this can be better addressed by the businesses and organizations that have benefited from our technologies. It may mean more if the general public hears it from others rather than just from us.” Travis also asks NASA Tech Briefs readers to help NASA’s cause. “We encourage readers to contact us when they read articles that are of interest. Spread the word. Be supportive and enable us to share and transfer technologies. Talk about the benefits from having read the magazine and accomplished interaction.”
According to Cheeks, “Continuous outreach such as face-to-face activities, published materials, and now social media, is a major component in getting the word out that NASA has technologies and capabilities to share to help introduce or improve new products for numerous purposes. I think a grassroots approach of working with public and private economic development organizations and technology alliances to target needs and respond with unique NASA solutions is one way of getting there.”
Telling NASA’s story about technology commercialization can be done via social media, according to James. “If you’re going to reach the general public, somehow you have to reach them in a way that they’re listening to, and that’s how they’re listening these days.”
Makufka agrees that social media and the Web are both good ways for NASA to spread its message. “It’s things like more presence on the Web as the younger generation becomes more interested and more of a target for that messaging. They are more Web-savvy, and all the tools of today — Twitter, blogging, videos — are a good way to reach that audience.” He points to a recent campaign of NASA videos featuring celebrities talking about the benefits of spinoffs (NASA-developed technologies that become commercial products). At NASA, “it’s part of everyone’s responsibility to do the outreach and communications to the people they’re working with, and to be able to talk about the benefits, either specifically or in a broader context.”
Morse sees the value of NASA technologies as game-changing. “There is something economists call ‘disruptive technologies.’ A technology that is really disruptive to normal operations has the potential to take away or minimize existing markets, and lead to new markets, new products, and new jobs — all while enhancing the quality of life on Earth. We have to keep developing those disruptive technologies that keep the American economy prosperous and moving forward. And a lot of those technologies come from within NASA.”