The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) holds more than 1,600 patents consisting of a massive span of technologies, from optics and sensors, satellites and robotics, to biomedical applications and the Internet of Things. Now, Fort Lewis College students have access to every single one of them.
Through the Technology Transfer University (T2U) program, students in Professor Michael Valdez’s Advanced New Business Ventures course get to scan the entire NASA patent portfolio for the technology they find both interesting and promising for Earth-based application. Using their business and technical acumen, Entrepreneurship and Engineering students work together to find a way to accelerate the commercialization of NASA technologies. Students conceptualize products and potential target markets while engaging in real-world, hands-on studies.
“We offer students the whole patent portfolio,” says Walt Ugalde, industry outreach executive at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “The students know these technologies were used for off-planet space-based applications and in some cases directly for astronaut life support systems. And, when they discover an earth-based commercial application, it’s always awesome to see how the students’ faces light up with enthusiasm about the technology.”
With access to an out-of-this-world technology portfolio, students get to think big. Can the solar panel technology developed for the International Space Station be applied to net-zero rural communities? Can autofocus lenses from space-based telescopes with laser-based feedback loops work as self-correcting eyeglasses for a near-sighted person? Students in Valdez’s capstone course work through nine levels of business and product valuation modules. Upon completion of these modules, students develop a business plan, a conceptual commercial product, and a pitch deck. The end of the semester culminates in a pitch day to professors and representatives from the NASA T2U team.
“Throughout the semester, NASA engineers pop into my class just to listen to students do draft runs of presentations,” says Valdez. “It’s mind-blowing the access students have to these high-level individuals, and the engineers are totally supportive of and engaged with the students. We even had a NASA engineer give a talk about how NASA uses crowd-sourcing as an innovative business tool.”
Senior Taylor Altman and his partner, junior Sam Fanion, chose a radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking system patent for their research. The patent was originally developed for use on the International Space Station to organize and keep track of the hundreds of small tools and items the astronauts need every day. Altman was intrigued by the idea of developing trackable frisbees, specifically the disc golf frisbees that FLC students are all too familiar with losing out on the campus course.
“From NASA’s portfolio of patents, which span different manufacturing techniques and market applications, we had the freedom to find the one that matched our interests,” says Altman. “Once we found the RFID patent, I thought, ‘could you imagine?’ Disc golf frisbees first came to mind but then all of the sudden I was like, ‘what about people?’”
NASA’s RFID tracking system offers a robustness that far exceeds what’s available on the market today, for example in key finder chips or RECCO reflectors in outdoor apparel. RECCO is a passive transponder stitched into backpacks or rain jackets that can be detected by radar sent by search and rescue teams. When the RECCO transponder is hit with radar, its signal will guide rescuers in the general direction of a missing person. But as Altman put it, “RECCO could be so much better.”
“The NASA RFID patent, used in this case, has the capability of getting not only direction but also estimated distance,” says Altman. “Taking that and having fresh eyes, our proposal was for an outdoor extreme weather rescue system. It wouldn’t replace an avalanche beacon, for example, but it would be another, particularly reliable, line of insurance.”
Valdez and Ugalde agreed that Altman and Fanion’s proposal was exceptional, and a strong indication of the opportunities for success students have through the T2U program. Teams with promising proposals have the option, through a commercial Start-Up NASA Patent License, to leverage the technology for free for three years to pursue developing their commercial product for launch into the marketplace as a lean start-up company.
Altman, an Entrepreneurship major, and Fanion, an Engineering major, are focused on finishing their degrees for now, but the prospect of bringing their product to market is exciting. “First things first, I’m concentrating on getting through school,” says Altman. “But once graduated I want to pursue it more seriously. I think it has the potential to transform the industry.”
This is exactly what Steve Elias, dean of the School of Business Administration, wants—more Skyhawks transforming the business and aerospace industries.
"In the business school, we have always placed an emphasis on experiential learning, and the T2U program takes experiential learning to an entirely new level. Students who complete the program will have a huge leg up in both business and aerospace when they hit the job market."
“In the business school, we have always placed an emphasis on experiential learning, and the T2U program takes experiential learning to an entirely new level,” says Elias. “Students who complete the program will have a huge leg up in both business and aerospace when they hit the job market. The T2U program is only offered by a handful of colleges and universities throughout the country, so we are beyond excited that we can offer this amazing opportunity for our students.”
FLC is the only NASA T2U college in Colorado, which is the second-largest aerospace economy in the country. Colorado’s natural attributes (open plains and high elevation) plus space exploration programs, military bases, and research centers have helped more than 400 companies lead and support groundbreaking missions related to space and planetary science. And FLC is positioning itself as a major supplier of talent.
“The quality of students that FLC attracts and produces is top-notch and can compete with any major university across the nation,” says Ugalde. “In this class, students are layering on the business and marketing tools while taking a deep dive into the technical aspects of the patents. This is a very relevant skill set to the industry. Ultimately, what employers of today’s global workforce are looking for are people who can fully engage in using innovation strategies and abstract thinking while leveraging technical engineering and business acumen across a broad set of challenges. I truly believe that Dr. Valdez’s capstone class is doing just that.”
Ugalde hopes to see more Skyhawks walking around the 10 NASA field centers in the future. The NASA T2U program also helped lay the groundwork for Valdez and Ugalde to connect the FLC Career Services office to the NASA internship programs—NASA Pathways and NASA OSTEM.
“Through the incredible vision and foundation established by Dean Elias and Professor Valdez, FLC students who only dreamed of the stars are now, more than ever, that much closer to them,” says Ugalde. “This generation of FLC students are the ones that will enable NASA to live and work on the moon permanently and ultimately take us to Mars. These students truly are the Artemis Generation.”