Cal Poly-Pomona participants, from left, are Tyler Frisbie, Julio Perez, Ashley Knoblach, Ravin Kumar, Winny Dong and Olukemi Sawyerr. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) › View Larger Image When a researcher develops a technology or novel approach to completing a task, he or she writes and submits a new technology report, or NTR. If he or she needs help, it can be found at the Dryden Innovative Partnerships office.
The IPO office, known previously as the Innovative Partnerships Program office, offers help through its new NTR Plus initiative. NTR Plus is designed to collect the information most relevant to assessing the discovery's patent and partnership potential, said Julie Holland, Dryden's partnership development manager.
Once an NTR is approved, the IPO office completes the initial technology screen, which evaluates how unique the idea or invention is, what is available that is like it and the possibilities for commercialization. The evaluation can lead to a full assessment if the technology shows promise.
That's where students from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, come in. In the three-month Tech Screen pilot project – and, soon, in a six-month trial run – a technical student/business student pairing chose a Dryden technology to evaluate. Supervised by a professor, the student teams complete a preliminary assessment that includes market research, research that might be competitive with it, a search of the U.S. Patent Office database for similar ideas, commercial possibilities and recommendations for pursuing a patent or non-patent track with the new discovery.
In April, two of the student teams and two faculty advisors came to Dryden to present information on the technology each team had chosen for the pilot project. At this meeting, students and center representatives compared notes on what worked and what could be refined for the larger, six-month project that will soon begin.
A preliminary meeting to ensure that the students understand what the technology is was one of the suggested improvements. Overall, the Dryden representatives were encouraged by the students' work, which included areas of thought no one at the center had considered, a key reason for seeking student collaboration.
"It points us in a direction," Holland said. "We wanted to give students the framework, but we didn't want to taint how they would see the possibilities. Put creative minds together and you experience the power of novel insights."
The Dryden IPO, previously known as the Innovative Partnerships Program office, funded the grant. The Aerospace, Education, Research and Operations, or AERO Institute in Palmdale administered the grant.
In addition to inspiring students with resume-building work, the project aims to contribute to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education, providing a qualified external capability for Dryden technology screening. In addition, Cal Poly-Pomona's three-quarter entrepreneurship program, which is part of the university's Innovation and Commercialization Laboratory, adds a technology component.
The laboratory is co-taught by Olukemi Sawyerr of the university's college of business, and Winny Dong of the college of engineering, principal investigator on the project. The idea is for students to learn about business development, entrepreneurship involving technology and product development in a hands-on manner while working on an interdisciplinary team.
Students had another incentive: the assignment could be a door to starting their own business, or a pathway to selling a new product to an established business.
"This program is novel in that non-patent-track technologies allow opportunities for students to put a business plan together. If they come up with a plan in the Cal Poly-Pomona curriculum, they are expected to go out and raise the money, make a prototype, then launch and sell it if they can. An example is an algorithm that might not be patent-track, but still might be very useful for games or an application of some kind. There are all kinds of possibilities," Holland said.
The professors managing the program see the opportunities for their students.
"Students tested their capabilities in an unknown context. Bringing a business student and an engineering student together to do a tech screen for NASA is not something that many students have the opportunity to do," Sawyerr said. "They were nervous about whether they would be able to do it. We didn't give them much structure, and we let them struggle with the idea because the real world is unstructured. Then they were doing the research, collecting the data and coming out here, delivering and having such a positive reception.
"I like the fact that the students were able to see the intellectual property side of technology," Dong said. "Engineering courses do not cover the importance of protecting intellectual property. How you protect ideas, when do you patent – exposure to that world was valuable for them."
The students included Tyler Frisbie, Ashley Knoblach, Ravin Kumar and Julio Perez.
Perez, a business and supply chain management student, said he learned from a project that, at first, was as complicated to understand as hieroglyphics.
"The collaborative aspect was valuable – I never had experience with mechanical engineering," he said. "Understanding how it works was a challenge in itself. Speaking to engineering professors, I started figuring it out. I was so used to everything having to do with business; I had to go outside my comfort zone to figure out what all these engineering terms mean. [The experience] was very valuable."
His partner, Kumar, who is studying mechanical engineering, had another point.
"Working directly with NASA on the newest, coolest stuff and getting insight into how I can fit into NASA was the best. It was also like being thrown into ice water, trying to figure out if it was marketable and, if it is, who would want to buy it," he said.
The project reinforces that Dryden and academia make good partners; Dryden's new technologies are getting a much-needed boost from the partnership with Cal Poly-Pomona.