Houston-based NASA technology strategist aims to connect the entity to startups and technologies across the country
NASA has 1,400 technologies that are available for licensing across industries, but only 20 percent of those technologies have been licensed — traditionally by mid- to large-sized companies.
NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez, who's had a 30-year career at NASA at the Johnson Space Center, is responsible for moving these technologies out into the community. About four years ago, his department created a program to target startups and engage them with the organization's technology. Startup NASA is a program in which startups can license NASA technology for free for three years before the licensing fees kick in.
"We thought that once we created this program we'd have startups coming to break the door down to get these technologies, and that isn't the case," Gonzalez tells InnovationMap. "So, what I've been focusing on is trying to find was to connect to ecosystems across the country to introduce them to this program and our technology and find people who will be the bridge between us and these ecosystems."
All this month, with the world's focus on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Gozalez is able to benefit from this momentum and reenergized focus on space. He spoke with InnovationMap about his career in space and the future Houston will play in the next 50 years.
InnovationMap: What initially got you interested in space and how did it turn into a career?
Steven Gonzalez: Star Trek, the original series. I had the desire to be Captain Kirk and be on the Starship Enterprise. I was born in New York, and raised in the Northeast. In 8th grade, I already had the bug to go to NASA and be the first in my family to go to college. I remember having all my classes picked out with college course credit, and — by this time we had moved to New Jersey, and we were only the second Spanish family there — the guidance counselor looked at my schedule and told me I would be better going to autoshop.
I went to Boston University and then got my master's at Texas A&M University. Right after A&M, I started at the Johnson Space Center in 1988, and I was working in mission control bringing in new technology. I remember getting there and expecting to see something along the lines of the Starship Enterprise, and it looked the same as it did from the Apollo timeframe. After that, I trained astronauts for a couple years before going back and working to bring the new control center online. The Houston Chronicle compared it to the tech on the Starship Enterprise, and I finally felt like I had arrived.
IM: From your strategic roles to now managing technology, what are some of the challenges you've faced in your NASA career?
SG: I looked at the 20-year strategy for the Johnson Space Center and how to get it positioned for the growth of commercial and international space. It was a great role, and the challenge for NASA predicting a long-term strategy was that every four or eight years, we get a new president, and when we get a new president, we get a new direction. We did all this strategy planning and using all the tools — this was in 2006 before we knew what Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were up to — and we said that over 20 years, we predicted that the commercial market would grow and our role would have to shift. That was a hard message to swallow at that time when we had so much going on.
After working in strategy, I shifted to focus on partnerships, and now my role is technology transfer. After most of my career focused on impacting life space, now this last part of my career is focused on impacting life here on earth. My role now is to move technology out and find technology to bring in — mostly moving technology into startups around the country.
Now, my challenge in my role of moving technology out is that, especially when we go to startups, people think of NASA technology as being space technology. But, of our 1,400 technologies we have, so many of them have already impacted all different industries. So, trying to get people to figure out how to connect to the startup ecosystems is another challenge.
IM: What's been the effect on NASA now that commercialization has ramped up?
SG: First, we were created with a two-fold mission — to explore and to benefit humanity. From day one we have been moving our technology out. Unfortunately, we at NASA have the reputation of giving to the world Tang and Velcro, and neither one of that is true. The reality is so much more fantastic. The camera on our phones and LASIK came from NASA technology. There's a technology I love to talk about. We were working with Texas Children's Hospital, and they had a challenge of moving premature infants from room to room. The gurney would vibrate quite a bit and hurt their internal organs — some would even pass away from this. Our astronauts train two to three hours a day to keep their muscles and bones up and running, so they exercise on treadmills and bikes on the space station. Left unchecked, those vibrations from the equipment would ruin the experiments on the space station. So, we have the technology and expertise here in Houston that we worked with TCH and created a carrier that allows these children to be transferred without any harm to them.
The second part is that our technology is seeding this new commercial space market. Back in the '90s here in Houston, we developed a technology that was an inflatable habitat. When we send astronauts to the moon or mars, they need a spacious habitat that isn't too heavy to be transported via spacecraft. So, we created that technology, and Bob Bigelow, who owns a bunch of hotels and wanted to have the first hotel in space, long story short, he licensed our technology, created this hotel that's circling space and waiting until Uber can transport his paying customers up there. In the process, he thought that NASA and the ISS can use it in the meantime. So it's a technology we started, but we didn't have to commercialize it, someone else did the full development of it.
IM: So, it sounds like it's much more collaborative of a relationship between NASA and commercial entities than it is competitive, would you say?
SG: I'm glad you brought that up. A lot of times people think it's a competition. In the 1960s, it was a competition between us and the Russians. Then, the space station became this collaborative community. With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another. We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from. Also, we still are doing things that are tougher to make money on. We do things that has no return on investment, and the commercial companies are focusing on things they can make a market for.
IM: What role do you see Houston playing in the future of space?
SG: Right now, it's a bit premature to really talk about anything, but we're in conversations with various startup organizations about growth and collaborations. Between NASA, the Houston Spaceport, and the annual SpaceCom, Houston in an incredible position to be the hub for this growing, trillion-dollar commercial space market. Through events like SpaceCom, we are a hub for a lot of international activity. Houston already being a hub for international travel and business already, it could be an international gateway for the space industry.
IM: What does Space City Month mean to you and the city of Houston?
SG: We've always been the Space City, but for a while there, it was taken for granted. It's part of our history, but it's nice to see it brought back into the foreground to realize that it's not just history, it's who we are today. It's been better over the past few years as we've seen this conversation increasing. This anniversary is bringing back to the forefront how Houston embraces space for the future.
Portions of this interview have been edited.