February / March 2012 Volume 10 Number 1

For NASA, Tech Transfer Is Old Hat

At President Obama’s request, agencies across the federal government are trying to team up with the private sector to create jobs. Historically, no federal agency has more experience—or more success—at spinning off government-funded research to the marketplace than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Memory foam, cordless tools, smoke detectors, and magnetic resonance imaging—these and scores of other everyday technologies were either devised for NASA by private companies or advanced by NASA scientists over the years.

“NASA really is the gold standard for technology transfer,” said Daniel Lockney, the agency’s technology transfer program executive under the Office of the Chief Technologist. “The money spent on research and development doesn’t just go up into space; it comes down to earth in the form of some very practical and tangible results.

“We know that the investment in technology creates jobs, boosts the economy and provides benefits in addition to the mission focus,” Lockney said. “Our technologies have done everything from make hospitals more efficient to making transportation safer and greener. The technology reaches into all aspects about our lives.”

NASA’s efforts on the technology transfer front are as old as the agency itself.  The Space Act of 1958, which created NASA, called for the dissemination of NASA-funded research and development to the public. In the early 1970s, NASA began issuing annual “Technology Utilization Reports” that documented the space program’s technology transfer efforts. These reports were popular with Congress and within the agency and eventually NASA decided to transform the annual report into a four-color publication known as Spinoff. The publication is still going strong today.

Lockney explained that there are many different paths that NASA technologies follow from the laboratory or launch pad to the private sector and then to the marketplace. Many times, the process takes years. Depending on the type of technology, its readiness, the work involved in preparing it for a secondary application and the level of work required to launch the product, the timeframe can vary greatly.

For some technologies, the target market is so specialized or the product is so advanced that it takes a long time to be commercialized. For example, rotating cellular bioreactors have taken nearly twenty years to reach commercial maturity, as their application in cellular-level biological research is more advanced than current state-of-the-art technology.

Some medical technologies require regulatory certification or clearance before they are used publicly and take even longer to reach market. At the other end of the spectrum, some technologies can be rapidly commercialized. One company, for example, licensed an electrolyte-based re-hydration beverage developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Within several months, the company had a product on the shelves. Each technology is different, and can take many unique paths to market.

 “The point at which my office engages most often is the reporting of a new invention,” Lockney said. “We have about 1,500-plus of those every year from various offices that engage in technology development throughout the agency.
NASA people will come up with new ideas, software development processes, new built hardware, etc., and then when they report, that’s where our office steps in.”

Once the NASA technology transfer office receives the new idea, it begins working to determine its technical and commercial viability. An “industry assessment” analyzes who might use the technology in the marketplace. Once targets are determined, NASA secures the intellectual property rights and then works on ways to move it out to the public. In many cases, Lockney explained, the best way to formalize the opportunity for technology transfer is through the license of a patent.

“At that stage we don’t have a lot of control over it,” he said. “There’s a backlog at the patent office and it can take 18 months to five years. The patent comes back to us and we market it to industry and we try to show them different ways the technology could be used and that it’s still modern and relevant and our commercial assessment is still accurate.”

Lockney’s office is in charge of technology transfer for technologies that are well-developed and on a relatively fast track to the marketplace. Meanwhile, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts, or NIAC, program seeks out more far-out ideas, or proposals for revolutionary concepts with the potential to transform future aerospace missions. Proposed concepts should lead to new capabilities or significantly alter current approaches to launching, building and operating space systems.

NIAC projects are chosen for their innovative and visionary characteristics, technical substance and early development stage—ten years or more from use on a mission. NIAC's current portfolio of diverse and innovative ideas represents multiple technology areas, including power, propulsion, structures and avionics.

“NIAC is a forward-looking program that captures what's great about America's space program,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA's space technology program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. “NASA is looking for futuristic concepts that may enable leaps forward in how we work in and explore the space frontier. Equally important, we're asking for ideas from all sources: American citizen-inventors or educators working out of their garage to the visionary small business owners fueling our nation's economy.”

NASA’s NIAC program issued its first calls for proposals last summer, and those are now under study. Due to the tremendous response and large number of submissions received from last year's call for proposals, NASA is incorporating a two-step process.

  Gazarik said NASA expects to fund approximately 15 proposals in this year's Phase I process. Those selected will receive up to $100,000 for one year to advance the innovative space technology concept and help NASA meet current operational and future mission requirements. Selection announcements are expected this summer. Past NIAC Phase I proposals have included a broad range of imaginative and creative ideas, including: changing the course of dangerous orbital debris; a spacesuit that uses flywheels to stabilize and assist astronauts as they work in microgravity; the use of 3-dimensional printing to create a planetary outpost; microbial fuel cell technology for powering tiny robot explorers; and other innovative propulsion and power concepts needed for future space mission operations.

NIAC is similar to the Pentagon’s DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency,  in that it is looking to seed long-term, high-risk and potentially high-yield breakthrough technologies. While NIAC sets its sights on long-range projects with payoffs as far out as 100 years, the agency’s technology transfer division is looking for technologies that can be sent to market within a decade or so. But even that time frame takes a long view.

“It takes years, actually, and that’s the challenge in explaining this.” Lockney said. “Some of the benefits we’re realizing commercially are for technologies that were originally funded for development 10 or even 15 years ago. A technology program is initiated and new technologies are developed but that may take a while.”

The NASA patent portfolio is now online, which makes it searchable and easy to find. The public can view the database at technology.nasa.gov.

Lockney said technology transfer isn’t inherent is NASA’s mission. The agency doesn’t design technologies with an eye to the marketplace, yet officials at the agency have realized since its outset that tech transfer could be a byproduct of NASA’s research that’s very beneficial to the American economy.

“It’s something we do to create a return on investment,” Lockney said. “In business terms, it’s not a direct return on investment. If you wanted to create a miniaturized heart pump, building a space shuttle main engine wouldn’t be the most efficient way to go about doing that.

“But we know that in developing the technologies we need for our missions we will also develop technologies that have widespread applicability and have other uses than what we intended them for. Then there are the serendipitous discoveries that we don’t know quite what we’ll get out of them but we know that we will because we have  long history of finding and developing technologies,” he continued. “And this does lead to job creation. New products and markets have substantial benefits to the public.”

Tom Michael is Innovation’s Washington bureau chief.