Recently, U.S. space exploration agency NASA unveiled its most significant redesign of its Home & City website in about a decade. The website is aimed at giving a better idea of the many technologies they use or encounter, often on a daily basis, which they may not know were first developed by the scientists and engineers at NASA.
Even though only 130 of the thousands of technologies spun-off by NASA are included in the website, the breadth of technological development represented by even that small number is pretty remarkable. But how exactly does space exploration research result in the commercialization of items like more nutritious baby formula or precision coffee makers?
Daniel Lockney, tech transfer executive director for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, notes that research from NASA is made available to the public in many ways outside of patent licensing. For example, Lockney stated that anywhere from 15,000 up to 18,000 research papers are published every year which utilize data collected and reported by NASA. Regarding the kind of intellectual property that could be patented, however, Lockney said that the agency receives between 1,600 and 1,800 new invention disclosures each year. About one-third of those are inventions created by small business contractors or at universities, another third relates to software inventions which NASA doesn’t patent, and the remaining third typically consists of hardware inventions.
NASA will enter into a range of different patent license agreements from no-cost evaluation licenses up to exclusive license. The agency’s goal in licensing technologies is to reach the widest distribution possible for the commercialized technology. To some, it may seem unusual that exclusive licenses would be part of NASA’s licensing options if the goal was truly the widest distribution possible. “We’ll only grant an exclusive license if we believe that exclusivity leads to the widest distribution,” Lockney said, noting that there were a couple of examples where such a situation could play out. An exclusive license for the broadest possible distribution could make sense if the technology was being commercialized in a medical device and a single multinational company offers an incredibly broad distribution model; such was the case with a flexible insulating plastic material for use with pacemaker wires recently licensed by NASA with Medtronic. In other situations where multiple companies occupy the same market, NASA might grant an exclusive license to one company if it’s determined that, without the exclusivity, none of the firms could invest adequately in commercializing the technology. This situation tends to play out when the market for the commercialized technology is small and is serviced by a few small firms.
Technology transfer has long been a focus at NASA and Lockney points out that one of the main functions of the agency under the terms of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the law that created NASA, is to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” By 1963, NASA had established its first tech transfer office and the agency was publishing NASA Spinoff by 1976 in order to show how NASA research and development was impacting the lives of the American public. Interesting, Lockney notes that the first issue of NASA Spinoff featured a technology commercialized by John Deere to improve tractor technology, and the 2017 issue of Spinoff published last year discussed John Deere using precision global positioning system (GPS) technology from NASA for automated farming with the use of unmanned tractors.
In some instances, technology is commercialized by researchers who work with NASA on a project and see a new potential application of that technology; such was the case with the aforementioned algae-based additive for more nutritious baby formula. In other instances, NASA will screen inventions disclosed to the agency and analyze the potential applications and benefits and either market the inventions online, exhibit the invention at trade shows or even cold-call companies which could be interested in the technology.
NASA doesn’t file patent applications for defensive purposes; according to Lockney, the only reason NASA would file for a patent is to license and commercialize a particular technology. Part of NASA’s process of screening new invention disclosures to determine whether or not to file a patent application involves considering whether the inventor would be a champion for commercialization. “Our patenting activities require that an inventor is willing and able to teach and show partners how to use the technology,” Lockney said. The readiness of the technology for commercialization is also a factor informing NASA’s patenting activities. According to Lockney, the agency looks for technologies that can be commercialized within a five- to seven-year time frame, prior to the patent’s second maintenance fee payment.
Currently, Lockney estimates that 30 percent of NASA’s patent portfolio is licensed with sensors, instruments and new materials being among the most popular. About 85 percent of NASA’s patent licenses is with firms that aren’t in the aerospace sector. “We’re really proud of our licensing process,” Lockney said. “It’s straightforward and simple. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect with a commercial enterprise but maybe not a government agency.” NASA publicizes information regarding its patent and technology portfolio through a searchable online database where interested parties can view technologies and even begin the licensing process by answering a questionnaire which is then sent to NASA’s licensing managers.