Turning Big Ideas From NASA Into Products You Can Use

NASA scientists and engineers are responsible for many inventions and technological breakthroughs, including Lasik, artificial limbs, 3D food printing, freeze drying, solar cells, and openstack software. But how do they get from the space agency to a store near you? NASA runs what’s known as the Technology Transfer Program to do just that, but great ideas often need a bit of refining before they’re ready for primetime.

That’s where NASA CPP, the business start-up program at Cal Poly Pomona, comes in. They screen technologies from NASA inventors at all 10 NASA centers to identify commercial opportunities for materials and concepts. Dr.

H. Erkan Ozkaya, founding director of NASA CPP and CBA professor of innovation and associate professor of marketing and international business at Cal Poly Pomona, gave us a tour of the facilities. Around the breakout room were various prototypes of products using NASA technologies–mostly at the early stages of development.

One team, which included physics, computer engineering, business, and apparel/merchandising students, worked on a fiber optics insert for clothing to correct posture. Known as Posturonic, the original technology came from sensors that detect the curvature of aircraft wings. The NASA CPP team has taken that concept to promote correct posture down here on Earth, mitigating injuries.

In a demo we saw, when the wearer slouched, the fiber optics embed within the T-shirt sent a haptic pulse and a ping to the accompanying app. The hope is that Posturonic will be marketed both direct-to-consumer and to businesses to help employers reduce insurance premiums, putting the onus back on the worker to stand correctly. Under Dr.

Ozkaya’s direction, the team built out a workable prototype but was now wrestling with how to embed the fiber optics within a washable thread. Once that’s figured out, they’ll work on a go-to-market strategy, probably starting with a Kickstarter campaign in early 2019. It was clear the students relished working directly with NASA technologies–extremely rare within an undergraduate business program–and had innovative ideas about how to best repurpose these concepts for everyday use.

We sat down with Dr. Ozkaya to find out how the collaboration with NASA came about, and what he hopes his teams of students will gain from close encounters with space tech. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.

Dr. Ozkaya, can you tell us how this collaboration with NASA came about?
When I started at Cal Poly Pomona, there was already a NASA-CPP Technology Screen Assessment Program, and I was invited to take part in it. This job involved finding potential customers for NASA technologies.

I lead student teams to find alternative applications for the NASA technologies in different industries, assess market potential of these applications, choose the top three industries, contact the top 20 companies in that industry that have a potential to use this technology, and connect the interested companies with the NASA Tech Transfer Office. The missing link was the companies were interested but wanted to see a developed product. However, NASA’s focus is not on developing new products for consumer use.

Thus, I started the NASA-CPP Business Startup program to help bridge that gap. Today we have several alumni at NASA and JPL. NASA CPP won the Outstanding Partnership Award in 2017.

Tell us what that was for.
That was partly for my work on the NASA-CPP Technology Screen Assessment Program and also specifically on Project Fantom which, in collaboration with NASA engineers, sought to solve the problem of current fan inefficiencies and will be used in the Mars 2020 mission. The original technology came from NASA research into wing efficiencies and we converted this into a highly innovative consumer fan blade which will decrease electricity usage [and] carbon emissions–and is much quieter than traditional consumer fans. We’re also in talks to utilize this technology to design better UAV propeller to reduce the very noisy “angry wasp” sound.

You also have a role as Technology Transfer Project Consultant to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. What are you working on now with them?
We are currently on a hiatus until the funding is restored. However, I worked on several technologies, some of which turned into NASA-CPP Business Startup Program projects.

Fantom came out of that collaboration, as did Posturonic and a physiotherapy product [which doesn’t have a name yet], inspired by a NASA fiber optics strain sensor technology. We’ve developed a low-cost technology that would do the same job for our purpose, to provide an affordable wearable electronics product, embedded within everyday clothing to improve posture. How do you manufacture prototypes?

Is there a “fab lab” here at CPP?
We do the prototyping in-house via 3D printers and other labs that are available to us. Three labs we use frequently are the fiber optics lab and the apparel merchandising lab, and iLab here at Cal Poly Pomona. How do you then bring innovations to market?

Is there a mechanism via NASA–or third-party commercial providers?
There is a licensing agreement. We will be paying royalties for the NASA technologies we utilize in our products, once they start generating revenue. Finally, if any PCMag readers are working within labs, startups, or academic institutions, and want to use NASA technology, just as you do here, what’s the process?
NASA has a site where you can apply to license their patents using the Automated Technology Licensing Application System–plus they have a special reduced-rates program for startups to encourage high-tech entrepreneurs.

You can apply to that program here.

For general searches on NASA-derived technologies, anyone can search the database here on everything from biotech to electronics, aeronautics to optics, robotics, and more.

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