Guest article

Houston startups can grow quicker and smarter with NASA's technology licensing program

NASA's Johnson Space Center in the Houston area houses so much technology that startups can license for free for three years. Photo via nasa.gov

Everyone on the earth benefits from human space exploration. Your company can directly benefit from NASA's advances in technology. Space is the place to be and right here in Houston, the NASA Johnson Space Center Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office is ready to make connections and licensing agreements work.

New technologies have been researched, developed, and proven on the ground — as well as above the earth on the International Space Station — in fields including medical, communications, agriculture, manufacturing, materials, structures, and much more. At NASA's JSC, we are proud of the exceptional innovators who continue to develop technologies that advance the space program and technology for society on our home planet, and we love to share our knowledge.

Let's say you're a Houston startup looking for a new way to recover water from mining and refinery waste. Or maybe you're a prominent engineering design firm in New York City that was searching for technologies to stabilize a building and found a solution in one of NASA's rocket program. Maybe you are able to sleep better on a new mattress that was designed with zero-gravity comfort in mind. These are a few examples of companies that were able to find just what they needed from the NASA Technology Transfer Program.

The main job for the TTO is to help share/license inventions from NASA with scientific, academic, industrial, and commercial entities. However, since NASA does not develop or manufacture technologies for commercial sale, they pursue patents on their technologies for two main reasons. The first is to give companies the ability to commercially develop a technology while it is being protected by a patent, and the second is because patents are granted by the United States Patents and Trademarks Office in return for disclosure and publication of the invention for public knowledge.

Licensing a NASA technology is not as daunting as it may seem. Of course, JSC's TTO is around for guidance. NASA offers a standard and startup commercial license." Here we are talking the Startup Commercial License. It gives a startup company – formed with the express intent of commercializing a licensed NASA technology – the ability to license it with no up-front fees for up to three years.

A NASA license also allows a non-NASA entity access to a technology for testing, and to implement it into a system, service, or product that could result in sales. The TTO office cares about success of commercial businesses, and the negotiation of terms is done on a case-by-case basis. NASA has the authority to grant licenses on both its domestic and foreign patents and patent applications, but only US start-ups are eligible.

When people see the NASA logo, they tend to think cool, exciting, and space exploration. When companies license NASA technology the connection automatically ups their game. Think of it like having that cool friend, the one that makes you stand out and gets you noticed. In this case, a license through JSC TTO can get an organization connected to top notch technology and a whole network of friendly engineers, scientists, technologists, innovators, business specialists, and oh yeah – astronauts.

The JSC TTO welcomes new friends and works well with others. It really is about sharing information and technology while caring about the benefits for not only human space exploration, but for the commercial business industry and all of society.

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Steven A. González is the technology transfer strategist for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. If you want to learn more about technologies available for licensing, please visit: https://technology.nasa.gov/patents.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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