How a handful of Rollins MBA students turned a NASA invention into a promising business endeavor in less than a year.
Robert Youngquist, lead scientist for the applied physics laboratory at Kennedy Space Center, and Rollins MBA student Jason Goldberg discuss the mechanics of the sensor that a group of Rollins students were charged with marketing. (Photo by Scott Cook) Besides whispers of space tourism and stories about retired space shuttles, there’s not a lot of front-page news coming out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) these days. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the laboratories are dormant and the scientists and engineers have hit the beach. They may have stopped sending astronauts to space, for now, but the wheel of scientific discovery and innovation continues to turn.
That’s due, in part, to NASA’s Technology Transfer program, which was created in the 1990s as a way to identify NASA inventions that may have commercial viability. “In the daily job of … trying to improve the way we do things, engineers and scientists develop different technologies,” says Jeff Kohler, a manager at KSC’s Technology Transfer Office. “We look at all the intellectual property coming out of our lab and see if there is commercial potential. It’s part of our mission to share our discoveries and research in a way that benefits the American economy.”
About a year ago, Kohler and Jim Nichols, intellectual property licensing manager for KSC, attended a federal lab consortium. There, another NASA center made a presentation about how they worked with local universities to gauge the commercial viability of their intellectual property. “We immediately thought we should take advantage of some of the universities in our own Central Florida backyard.”
They arranged a meeting with Cari Coats, director of Rollins Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship. Unbeknownst to NASA, Coats was in the process of identifying partners for Rollins’ Entrepreneurial Scholar of Distinction program, which launched in 2011 with a successful student immersion with the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.
“We were in search of … immersion opportunities where students could go in as consultants or as part of an investment team,” Coats says. “We showed NASA our program, and they immediately said they wanted to partner.”
After a highly competitive selection process, led by Professor Peter McAlindon, four Rollins MBA students were chosen to form the team that would analyze a piece of NASA intellectual property and see if it could be taken to market.
“When you think about NASA and schools in the area to partner with, your first thought would probably be UCF because of its fantastic College of Engineering,” McAlindon says. “But NASA realized that it wasn’t just technical expertise that is required to take a technology to market, but business expertise.”
McAlindon’s team included students with business experience as well as two with real-world engineering know-how.
Soon NASA was ushering students into the inner sanctums of the space center and handing over inventions. “This was the first time we did this with a student team. This kind of access doesn’t happen very often,” Kohler says.
Advised by McAlindon, the Crummer Graduate School of Business team—comprised of Jason Goldberg, Pankaj Patil ’13MBA, Steven Madow ’11 ’13MBA, and Carlos Capiro ’12MBA—reviewed the options and honed in on a noncontact position sensor developed by Robert Youngquist in his applied physics lab at KSC.
A noncontact position sensor might not seem sexy to the average Joe, but those with knowledge of robotics and manufacturing can easily see the wide applicability for something that can take very fine measurements, in 400-nanometer resolution, with absolute accuracy. Originally designed to detect microscopic cracks in the space shuttle’s windows, outside of NASA the sensor could have hundreds of applications.
“There are sensors like this already on the market, used in everything from medical robotics to missile guidance, but I’ve yet to see anything that could be made quite so inexpensively,” says McAlindon, who has a PhD in engineering. “We could immediately see that this was a product with a lot of range but a low production cost. That’s the winning formula entrepreneurs are looking for.”
A few months later, the Crummer team presented their market analysis and recommendations to Kohler and Nichols, who were blown away. “This evolved into something much bigger than we had expected,” says Kohler. “They were able to dive deep into the market analysis, something we don’t have the resources for. It turned out to be far more than an educational exercise. They presented a real opportunity to take the technology and form a company around it.”
“When we first met with NASA, they basically wanted us to look at a piece of technology and tell them if there was a market for it or if they should just dump it and move on. We knew all along that we could do that and so much more,” Goldberg says. From the first few weeks that the Crummer team began pulling together their market analysis, the idea that they had stumbled upon something huge started to feel electric. After the initial project was finished, the team shifted gears and formed the company, Juntura Group. (In Spanish, juntura means “joint.”) The team’s engineers created a sensor prototype to shop around the industry, including a company that had shown earlier interest in the sensor but hadn’t managed to convert it into a market-worthy product.
“These sensors are able to detect incredibly finite movements, to about 1/6 the width of a human hair, and have a wide array of applications, including 3-D printers, precision laser technologies, camera stabilization, as well as a variety of military applications, from adjusting missile fins mid-flight to stabilizing satellite communication uplinks,” says Capiro, who assumed the role of Juntura CEO in April.
“We officially signed a contract with NASA for exclusive rights to three patents surrounding inductive noncontact position sensors,” Capiro says. “Besides signing our exclusive agreement with NASA, we are well on our way to completing our first prototype of our own version of the NASA sensor. We have a great group of high-level engineers […] who have more than 100 combined years of experience from places like Lockheed Martin, L-3, Northrop Grumman, and Siemens.”
With the signing of a Space Act Agreement earlier this year, Crummer and NASA have agreed to continue to work together for at least another three years. Plans are already underway to identify a new group of MBA students who’ll begin working on another NASA technology in the fall, while the original students, now running Juntura, continue their work on the sensor.
“This is such a win-win; we provide the technology and educational experience, and the students get the chance to have real-world experiences bringing innovation to market,” Nichols says. “We have a portfolio of more than 400 technologies. There’s no telling how far this could go.”
Scenes from the Kennedy Space Center. (Photos by Scott Cook)