Image from the presentation from the Team Feedthrough, who were tasked with evaluating feedthrough technology in extreme environments and temperatures.
Image from the presentation from the Team Feedthrough, who were tasked with evaluating feedthrough technology in extreme environments and temperatures.

What agency is more innovative than NASA? In their pursuit of space exploration, NASA has given us inventions such as water filters, scratch-resistant lenses, cochlear implants, and memory foam, to name a few. But these products don’t make it from the exosphere to the marketplace without some outside assistance.

Born out of a continued partnership with the Tech Center Research Park in Newport News, Va., the integration of entrepreneurial education and NASA technology into Virginia Tech’s Executive MBA Program is a match made in – to paraphrase – the heavens.

Housed in the Pamplin College of Business, the Executive MBA is an 18-month program designed to prepare experienced managers for the business challenges of today and tomorrow. Designed to allow business professionals to complete while working full-time jobs, the program is structured in a cohort-based format, meaning an exclusive group of students is enrolled in the program and take classes, or modules, in lockstep with one another throughout the 18 months.

One of these modules, the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Experiential Module, brings NASA-developed technology into the classroom while bringing Pamplin ingenuity to NASA through their Technology Transfer University (T2U) program.

The T2U program serves as an invaluable asset to NASA’s Technology Transfer Expansion (T2X) initiative, which “accelerates commercialization through identification of potential use cases and target markets.”

“First and foremost, T2U is an academic exercise that is run by the instructors,” explained Mikaela McShane, program coordinator for NASA’s Technology Transfer Expansion (T2X) program, which houses T2U. “Initially the goal was to get a new perspective on the technologies. We would give the students tech that we either thought was exciting and new, or tech that we struggled to license that we were looking for a fresh perspective in terms of how to commercialize.”

The fall 2020 Executive MBA cohort was the first at Virginia Tech to experience this unique blending of worlds. Taught by Jeff Johnson, David Townsend, and Richard Hunt, students were able to learn through application of real-world case studies.

“We had three different teams and three different NASA technologies,” explained David Townsend, Union Jr. Faculty Fellow in Entrepreneurship, and associate professor with the Department of Management. “The Executive MBA students vet out how they would go about commercializing the technology. It worked fantastically well – the students did a marvelous job.”

The three technologies evaluated were: layered composite insulation for extreme conditions (LCX); feedthrough for severe environments and temperatures; and farming in space, a series of technologies developed to grow plants in microgravity. Each technology was from the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

“Technology was vetted and chosen specifically for the cohort,” explained Townsend.

Image from the presentation by the Aqua Entree team, who evaluated a series of technologies developed to grow plants in microgravity.
Image from the presentation by the Aqua Entree team, who evaluated a series of technologies developed to grow plants in microgravity.

Over about two months, each team went through the process of “customer discovery” with their respective technology. Customer discovery is the first step in building a successful startup or corporate venture, with the end goal of figuring out who the potential customers are and whether the idea (or technology) will appeal to them.

Ordinarily, this process is done by identifying a need in the marketplace and designing a product or service around said need. However, the Executive MBA students were tasked with taking existing NASA technologies and identifying specific commercial applications for them.

Essentially, they were asked to reverse-engineer the customer discovery process.

“It was challenging to have an innovative one-of-a-kind technology from NASA but not knowing what problem it solves in a particular market,” explained Christopher Gaines, member of the ALL-Insulation team. “The products have value for NASA and space exploration, but do they have value in a commercial earth setting?”

“Critical thinking enabled the ability to see the technologies and to decipher which ones had the best potential to build a business from,” said Jonathan Wendland, member of the Aqua Entrée team. “The key was to understand which technology enabled the best potential for other commercial uses.”

The teams had the benefit of being able to interact with the inventors of the technologies, gaining technical insight into their respective innovations.

“It was also very enlightening and enjoyable to work with the technology inventor, Jacob Torres,” said Randy Wood, member of the Aqua Entrée team. “His proposal for providing fresh food and vegetables in a zero/low gravity space environment (Passive Porous Tube Nutrient Delivery System, or PPTNDS) presented several possible uses on earth.”

Each team worked like a startup company, performing market research, customer interviews, and competitive analyses. At the end of the module, each team delivered their business plan pitch to a panel comprised of professors and NASA T2X personnel.

The result was a successful module and, perhaps, a few ideas for commercialization. “About two out of the twelve expressed an interest in spinning off the technology commercially,” said Townsend.

The benefit to the Executive MBA students to have real-world access to NASA technologies in an exercise in entrepreneurship is obvious. But what is the benefit to NASA?

“We see universities as a hub of innovation,” said McShane. “We want to be connected to universities in several different ways, and this is a great jumping-off point.”

Christie Funk, T2X program manager, explained that “We want to be engaged with academia, with industry, with entrepreneurship, and with start-up sectors. This is a great opportunity to get a different perspective, to get feedback on commercial applications around our technology. It provides the perspective that we don’t always get from inside the agency.”

A great deal of innovation stems from NASA research but public-private partnerships are critical to the development and translation of that research into products and services that benefit society.

The evolving collaboration between faculty and staff at Virginia Tech with NASA personnel has created the conditions for the emergence of is known as The New Horizons Collaborative at Virginia Tech. The purpose of The New Horizons Collaborative at Virginia Tech is to “advance the next generation of entrepreneurs to create and cultivate leading edge ‘deep tech’ and science-based ventures through a public-private partnerships between Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business and Tech Center Research Park together in collaboration with NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate Transfer Expansion program (T2X), Hampton University, and other public and private partners.”

The success of the initial “launch” of the collaboration between the Executive MBA and the T2U programs has resulted in its continuance; the fall 2021 cohort will be working with three new technologies.

“We are looking at ways to expand the program to include undergraduate courses as well,” said Townsend.

“Through this partnership with NASA, Virginia Tech students will take humans well beyond the moon and to the stars.”