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.

The panel of experts discussed the Space City's history — but also its future as a leader in space exploration. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Houston's been known as the Space City for about 50 years since "Houston" was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. But whether or not that nickname will continue to stick was up for debate at a 2019 SpaceCom panel on November 21.

The panel, entitled "Regional Benefits of a Commercial Space Economy: Case Study Houston," the panelists set out to discuss the city's rich history of space exploration, as well as to answer the question of where Houston's space industry is headed.

"We could ask that question in a passive way, but my preference is that here in Houston we ask the question now, answer it, and be very proactive and deliberate about making sure we get the outcome that we want," says Vernon McDonald, senior vice president at KBR and moderator of the discussion.

If you missed the enlightening discussion, here are a few takeaways from the panelists.

"Houston is in this great position to be this beacon to lead entrepreneurs and inspire other regions to explore further."

Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy. Jenet, who is based in Brownsville, Texas, is working to develop a vibrant commercial space hub in South Texas. In a lot of ways, the area looks to Houston's history for its development, he says.

"We built a community of engineers and scientists and a workforce that's all vested in the outcome of the human space flight program."

Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines. The creation of the Johnson Space Center developed generations within the community of scientists and engineers, but, moving forward, Houston has to be intentional about building its talent base. "I'm very passionate about doing that here in Houston," Altemus adds.

"There's a beacon of hope for our community if we can organize around it and attract commercial business here to keep this city the Space City, but redefine ourselves as a commercial space hub."

Altemus says, adding that it's going to take further development, talent, and funds — like what's happening at the Houston Spaceport — to make this transition.

"Over the years, Houston took space for granted. Houston started to focus on the bigger industries that brought in funding and jobs."

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At the risk of being unpopular, Gonzalez mentions that the city's attention has been diverted from space exploration. However, he adds, there are new initiatives from the Greater Houston Partnership and Houston First that are picking up the slack.

"The answers to Houston delivering on its potential is going to be collaborations — how well we collaborate."

Harvin Moore, president at Houston Exponential. Houston is collaborative, and the city needs to make sure its resources are inclusive as commercial space develops in town.

"I'd like to say that Houston is the birthplace of human space flight, and in 50 years, I'd like to see the city be the leader and the point of the spirit for human exploration internationally and commercially out in mars and beyond.

Altemus responds when asked about the Space City's next 50 years.

"I think what Houston will be most proud of in 50 years is that we played an extremely important role in shaping how Texas leads the world in commercial space exploration."

Jenet, who mentions that there's space exploration innovation happening statewide.

"When you think about what [leading space exploration] company will be here fifty years from now, I don't think it's been created yet. But I would like that company to be here in Houston."

Gonzalez says, adding that the first trillionaire is likely to make his or her fortune in the space industry, and he wants that money here in Houston.

"A lot of our future is not going to be based on what huge companies or government are doing but much more about entrepreneurs."

Moore says, emphasizing the need for developing startup resources in Houston.