Small Businesses Partner with NASA to Make a Difference on Earth and Beyond

Originally published 08/13/2021
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The NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program provides funding to small businesses and research institutions to research and develop their technology ideas into commercial products and services that benefit lives here on Earth. Read on for a few examples of spinoff successes that got their start with this small business funding.

Aerogel Insulations Save Millions in Industrial Applications
Aspen Systems, with help from NASA funding and expertise, developed the first sturdy, practical aerogel insulations. The effort spun off into Aspen Aerogels, a 300-person company with over $100 million in annual revenue. While the ultra-lightweight, super-insulating materials appear in many consumer products, their primary applications are in power plants, steam distribution systems, buildings, pipelines, and other industrial applications all over the world, where they conserve energy and reduce costs and downtime.

Temperature-Regulating Fabrics Keep Babies Comfortable
NASA funding led to the creation of fabrics incorporating phase-change materials (PCMs), most recently commercialized by Embrace Innovations in wraps and blankets that help keep babies at an optimal temperature. NASA originally investigated PCMs for managing heat inside spacesuits. Like ice cubes in a drink, PCMs absorb heat as they change from solid to liquid, and, if exposed to colder temperatures, they release that heat as they refreeze.

Swarming Technology Lets Drones Work as a Team
Existing flight infrastructure can only just manage the 7,000 or so flights a day in U.S. airspace. Something will need to change when an estimated 2 million self-piloted drones join airplanes in that space. NASA hopes technology like Heron Systems’ MACE software and hardware will help planes and drones work together to avoid accidents and work out flight paths with minimal guidance.

Virtual Reality Platform Helps Pilots Land in the Sky
Using Systems Technology Inc.’s virtual reality software, designed and tested in part with NASA funding, pilots can practice difficult maneuvers much more safely. The system, which works with standard aircraft, superimposes virtual landing strips or additional airplanes in the pilot’s field of view during flight.

Gas Processors Turn Oil Drilling Emissions into Fuel for Sale
Long stays on Mars would require the technology to rearrange molecules from the surface and atmosphere into resources like fuel and oxygen. Robert Zubrin of Pioneer Astronautics worked with NASA on a number of such projects for in-situ resource utilization. He later adapted some of those systems to capture and reuse the greenhouse gases that escape from oil wells, helping minimize waste – and reduce pollution.

Electrified Bacteria Clean Wastewater, Generate Power
What if wastewater could generate power? With the help of certain microbes, it can. This could be of use in space exploration, where resources are scarce and reuse is crucial. Here on Earth, Cambrian Innovation’s bioelectrically enhanced wastewater treatment systems can decontaminate even highly concentrated wastewater, with natural gas a by-product.

Chemical Simulation Software Predicts Climate Change, Air Quality
Simulating the many chemical reactions that occur constantly across the atmosphere is a complex task. ParaTools’s Kppa software, designed with NASA funding, is helping scientists study climate and weather.

Miniaturized Vacuum Pumps Play Big Roles on Mars and Earth
A vacuum pump designed to help the Curiosity rover study rock and gas samples on Mars could also help assure public safety following industrial accidents or terrorist attacks. Existing instruments to assess chemical dangers are too cumbersome to take into the field. Creare’s vacuum pumps, as small as a C battery and tough enough for planetary exploration, could help make mass spectrometers practical for use in the wake of a disaster, as well as in inspections and security screenings.

Smart Sensor Networks Monitor System Health – and Themselves
Autonomous systems need sensors to detect and help fix problems to keep operating. But what if the problem is in the sensor itself? American GNC’s work on smart sensor networks led to the company’s coremicro Reconfigurable Embedded Smart Sensor Node and the Smart Transducer Integrator, which can detect faults in the system they are monitoring as well as in the sensors.

Software Toolkit Steadies Rockets
One of the reasons rockets are so expensive is because many problems aren’t discovered until the rocket is on the test stand, when millions of dollars have already been invested. Gloyer-Taylor Laboratories has created a software toolkit that models and analyzes structures for one of the biggest problems – combustion instability – which can destroy a rocket. The goal is to find, and fix, any instabilities early on in the design process.

Embrace Innovations’ product line spun out of an MBA-student project to supply baby warmers to populations lacking access to modern medical care. Today, every item purchased from the company results in a warmer donated to an infant in need.

The robotic arm on the space station

There are many possible applications for Systems Technology Inc.’s Fused Reality system, including in space. A new contract with Johnson Space Center investigates use of the system on the space station, to practice complicated maneuvers of the robotic arm.

Small businesses partner with NASA to make a difference on Earth and beyond.