The IPP Offers A Variety Of Resources For Collaborations That Will Advance Technology And Result In Commercialization And Technology Transfer
A technology question emerges, but an individual NASA center does not have the resources to examine it in greater detail.
A researcher has an idea to solve a fundamental challenge, but not the expertise to take the concept to the next level.
University, small business or industry partners have a concept that could lead to a new technology, but not the technical knowhow, or the expensive and extensive diagnostic tools available at a NASA center.
What these three scenarios have in common is that NASA has a way of connecting the resources with the technical challenges. The Innovative Partnerships Program offers a number of initiatives to bridge the gaps between problem and resources to resolve it, or mature a technology so that it will be available when it is needed.
The IPP, which supports all four of NASA's mission directorates and includes an office at each of the agency's 10 field centers, uses a combination of investments and partnerships with industry, academia, government agencies and national labs to mature or investigate technologies. The three program elements are Technology Infusion, Innovation Incubator and Partnership Development.
Technology Infusion Element
Technology Infusion is the IPP element familiar to small businesses that seek to participate in government-funded research and development in key technology areas.
The Small Business Innovative Research - SBIR - program and the Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR, program invite companies of fewer than 500 employees to submit proposals describing how the company's unique capabilities and novel approaches offer research and development that can help NASA reach its goals. The IPP Seed Fund offers a similar opportunity for NASA research staff to submit proposals that leverage external partners to assist in government research.
The three programs are engines for starting up new technologies and industries, while providing NASA, university and college and small business researchers tools for exploring the unknown and defining research paths.
Researchers and companies can respond to the annual SBIR and STTR solicitation for proposals, which are reviewed and ranked with the top concepts selected for contract awards.
The idea is to investigate new ideas and, in later phases, commercialize the technology into products and services for other NASA programs, government agencies and for wider public use. Often times, NASA seeks to "spin in" technology, where it finds someone doing the work that will lead to the readiness level that could meet NASA's needs and might also lead to a commercially available product or process. NASA mission directorates help to define the areas of technology that are needed, which vary from year to year.
Congress created the SBIR program in 1982 to provide ways for small businesses to participate in government research and development as a means of increasing national employment and improving U.S. competitiveness. The program has the additional goals of stimulating technological innovation and increasing its commercial application, and encouraging a wider infusion of ideas.
SBIR contracts are negotiated by representatives of a NASA center and the winning proposal teams. A NASA center repreentative oversees the work during the contract.
In addition, the STTR initiative was started in 1994 and follows many of the same guidelines as the SBIR program. However, STTR agreements include a university or college partner. The idea was to create cooperative research and development opportunities with a college or university nonprofit research institute and develop intellectual property, including patents and copyrights. The small business then works to move the technology from the laboratory to the marketplace through new commercial products.
Approving the work in phases
SBIR and STTR each have as many as three phases. The first phase begins after the award is announced and the funding is provided to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology. Funding up to $100,000 is awarded for an SBIR contract for a six-month period and up to $100,000 and one year for a STTR.
Phase I work usually results in a working model of the concept, or a software or hardware package that makes the benefits of the concept obvious.
A Phase II award, which is granted to less than half of the Phase I proposals, can include funding up to $600,000 for two years to further develop the innovation. These efforts usually culminate in a prototype that demonstrates benefits beyond those shown in the Phase I work. In addition to the technical advances, a business is expected to provide the case for the proposed product, including market analysis, financial planning and business expertise.
A Phase III agreement is when the technology is mature and is used and paid for by someone who needs the technology or wants to further refine it. When an SBIR/STTR project reaches that point, it is considered a success story. A Phase II contract is not a requirement for a company to receive a Phase III contract.
An additional benefit of a company participating in an SBIR/STTR project is that government agencies and their prime contractors may select to do Phase III contract work without having further competition to use that company, eliminating the need for competition in selecting the company for a contracted service associated with the original Phase I work.
IPP Seed Fund
Partnerships to eliminate technology barriers and assist in meeting mission and technology readiness goals sometimes involve a different approach.
For these needs, the Innovative Partnerships Program Seed Fund was developed as part of the NASA IPP. It is used to meet technology goals by providing resources for initiating cost-shared joint technology development. The idea is to encourage the leveraging of staff, resources and equipment from NASA, its field centers and non-NASA partners.
Douglas A. Comstock, NASA Innovative Partnerships Program director, said during the past two years that IPP investments of $15.9 million in the Seed Fund facilitated the generation of 67 partnerships and was leveraged by the various partners for goods, services and funding of $62.2 million for the advancement of critical technologies and capabilities for the agency.
The IPP Office at NASA Headquarters asks NASA field centers for proposals. NASA's mission directorates then determine critical technology areas identified in the proposals.
Proposed projects should have a one-year duration and must include one or more non-NASA partners who are willing to provide cost sharing equal to or greater than the IPP funding provided to the project. Seed Fund projects are structured to provide up to $250,000 of research funding. Acceptable cost sharing from the partner includes funds and project and in-kind considerations such as workforce labor and the use of facilities and test beds.
Innovation Incubator Element
This IPP element includes the Centennial Challenge, Facilitated Access to the Space Environment for Technology Development and Training, or FAST, and the Innovation Transfusion.
The Centennial Challenges presents prizes to winning challenge contests with novel technological solutions in areas chosen by NASA. NASA provides the purse for the winners of the challenges and the competitions are coordinated and funded by external allied organizations and corporate sponsors. Innovations are sought from non-traditional sources in academia, industry and the public.
A Power Beaming Challenge at Dryden is intended to demonstrate wireless transmission of power to a robot designed to climb up a cable. In this case, NASA provided the prize money and the Spaceward Foundation coordinated the games.
Previous competitions used cranes to suspend the cable, but this event used a helicopter for the suspension of the one-kilometer long cable. The events for a particular challenge become increasingly larger, as does the prize money for the winning team. If there is no winner for a particular event, the prize money is rolled into the next competition - up to an award of $2 million for the power beaming competition.
The Power Beaming Challenge matures one of the two technologies sought through the space elevator games. A Tether Challenge scheduled for late this year in Seattle seeks advances in carbon nanotube material development. Other challenge competitions inspire advancement in the technologies such as those needed for a lunar lander, lunar regolith excavation and improvements to astronaut gloves.
The FAST initiative is an initiative to foster development of commercial services for NASA's need for microgravity environments. NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, and Vienna, Va.-based Zero Gravity Corp. provided commercial parabolic aircraft flight services to simulate multiple gravity environments.
The effort has the dual objectives of demonstrating the purchase of commercial services from the emerging commercial space sector, and advancing technology maturity through use of those services.
As commercial suborbital flights become available, the FAST project will seek to use those services as well - initially for technology development and eventually to support potential training needs. The options of 'shared rides' on sounding rockets or orbital vehicles, and space-environment training facilities may also be pursued. The goal is to eventually extend the commercial space service procurement model to a standard business practice within NASA.
The IPP works closely with mission directorates to identify technology development and users for micro-gravity flight services.
Through the Innovation Transfusion activity, the IPP hopes to create connections between innovative organizations outside NASA for increased agency benefit from external creativity.
Innovation Transfusion is intended to identify areas of innovation with potential benefit to NASA, recognize and learn from current innovations occurring outside the agency, broadly disseminate outside innovations to NASA, foster future partnerships and provide innovation focus to career development.
Innovation Transfusion contains two major components. The first is the Innovation Ambassadors program, which places NASA technical employees at external organizations for approximately three to 12 months to work on achieving the goals and objectives in their individual development plans.
The second component is the Innovation Scouts program, in which IPP staff and technology experts will visit innovative organizations for focused one- or two-day workshops to exchange information on specific innovations and to gather information on the host organization's latest technology developments.
Intellectual Property Management
Accordingly, partnership development efforts facilitate and provide for leveraging of partner expertise and funds to develop technologies critical to NASA's mission research and development goals. Sources of technology in the IPP portfolio include SBIR/STTR, Centennial Challenges, the IPP Seed Fund and dual-use technology development partnerships in addition to those technologies recorded in the NTTS database.
By surveying the available technology solutions and technology-needs landscapes inside and outside NASA, the IPP identifies potential matches.
To identify NASA's technology needs, the IPP works closely with NASA's mission directorates. The primary partnership agreement mechanism is the Space Act Agreement, although other agreement types are possible. NASA determines the appropriate agreement instrument.
Partnership Development Element
The final program element includes traditional technology commercialization activities that lead to patenting, licensing and protection of intellectual property.
New Technology Reports - required by contractors and government employees developing new government-funded technology - form the basis for communicating the new ideas to a broad audience thorugh a NASA technology tracking system. The IPP administers the processing of NTRs and provides commercial assessments, which are critical to patenting decisions for inventions reported in NTRs.
Management of intellectual property includes gathering those NTR reports and recording that information in a searchable database to track inventions and inventors. The NASA Technology Tracking System database tools aid in connecting specific technology needs with subject matter experts who have reported their research results.
With limited resources for technology development within NASA, it also has become increasingly important for the agency to bring in, or infuse, technology developed jointly in partnerships with industry, academia, other federal agencies and other external entities.
Another facet of intellectual property management is the licensing of NASA inventions. The IPP is responsible for originating and negotiating licenses and related partnerships with the private sector to facilitate the transfer of NASA-developed technologies for commercial application and other public benefits. Successful efforts in technology commercialization are referred to as "Spinoffs" and are showcased in an annual publication of the same name.
Licensing terms are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, although technology fields of use are defined as narrowly as is practical in every case, and exclusive licenses are rare. The IPP facilitates the protection of NASA's rights in its inventions identified in NTRs and enables NASA to license its technologies.
IPP benefits have permeated the U.S. and international economies, as the resulting commercial products - more than 1,600 of which are documented in NASA's Spinoff publication - contributed to development of services and technologies in health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, agriculture, environmental resources, computer technology, manufacturing and other key industrial sectors.
Companies big and small bring different skills and ideas to the table and serve as a valuable asset to NASA. In turn, the agency has a number of tools through the IPP to help advance the most worthy ideas.
Special thanks to Technology Innovation magazine, a publication of the NASA IPP Office, and Douglas A. Comstock, director of NASA's IPP program, and Yvonne Kellogg and Greg Poteat of the Dryden IPP Office for contributions to this article.
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