Bringing the Moon, Stars, Mars, and More Down to Earth Through Technology Transfer Programs

This blog is part of the History and Intellectual Property (H-IP) series. The cycle of creativity and innovation enabled by IP is vital for the continued success of creators and innovators around the world, as evidenced throughout history and across all industries. H-IP looks at various aspects of IP through case studies connecting creativity and innovation from history to the present.

As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continues preparation for the historic launch of Artemis I, now is the perfect time to reflect on a few of the countless innovations NASA and its global collaborators have provided over the years. Behind the popular freeze-dried foods and memory foam mattresses lie patented innovations and a world-class technology transfer program. NASA’s innovative history represents another great example of how intellectual property (IP), and more specifically the patent system, enables continued innovation and facilitates technology transfer so those new innovations can be put to productive use in society.

Technology Transfer Background

The commonly termed “Patent and Copyright Clause” of the U.S. Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 8, Clause 8) grants Congress the power “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Under patent law, innovators divulge knowledge necessary to allow those in a relevant field to replicate an innovation in exchange for a patent. Patent applications must make new, definite, and distinct claims as to the subject matter of an innovation. In exchange for divulging necessary knowledge, patents provide innovators with exclusionary control over the manufacturing, use, sale, licensing, and importation of their patented innovation for a limited period of time (generally 20 years or less). In other words, it is a patent owner’s decision (with limited exceptions) who can manufacture products based on their innovation and whether and how innovators are compensated for their work for so long as a patent is valid and active.

Organizations that own several patents, such as universities, typically set up technology transfer programs that facilitate licensing their patented innovations to others. This connects the labs to the companies that can take the ideas and technologies through to production and mass distribution.

Patent licensing through technology transfer programs is common practice across IP-intensive industries, and these programs enable subsequent innovators to build upon the work of others while compensating the initial innovators for their efforts. Essentially, if someone wants to use, improve upon, or include a patented innovation in their work, they can enter into a licensing agreement with the patent holder. Licensing agreements set out the terms and conditions—generally including compensation and a non-disclosure clause—that both parties agree to abide by. This enables subsequent innovation while ensuring the original innovator is adequately compensated and has a protection mechanism against the possibility of stolen IP. When revenue from IP licensing agreements is re-invested into research and development (R&D), it creates a virtuous cycle of innovation.

Although many of the more popular and well-known innovations went off-patent decades ago, NASA’s R&D efforts continue producing cutting-edge, patented technology. To further continued innovation, NASA officials announced in 2015 that the organization’s technology transfer program would open its patent portfolio (subject to certain documentation requirements and mandated exceptions for national security-related technologies). Anyone can search NASA’s patent portfolio online, and those who wish to license a particular technology can apply for one of three licenses: a standard commercial license, an evaluation license, or a start-up license. Standard commercial licenses are for companies who wish to make and sell products using NASA’s patented technologies, and applications require details on the intended use of the NASA technology, proposed fees and royalties, and risk assessment and mitigation. Evaluation licenses offer non-exclusive permission for organizations to explore and test the business potential of a NASA technology for up to one year. Under this agreement, licensees are not allowed to commercialize or sell the technology. Through start-up licenses, NASA waives the initial licensing fees and minimum fees for the first three years. After the company starts selling a product, NASA collects a standard net royalty fee. This particular license is only available to U.S. companies.

NASA’s Technological History

Consumers and innovators have reaped the benefits of NASA-funded R&D for more than half a century. Yet many may be surprised that this is by design. When Congress created the agency in 1958, it also mandated NASA “have a formal technology transfer program, and take an active role in transferring technology to the private sector and state and local governments for the purposes of commercial and other application of the technology for the national benefit.” In other words, NASA’s mission is not limited to outer space. Such public-private R&D collaborations are vital for continued innovation, especially in fields such as climate energy and biopharmaceutical innovation, where technologies require several years of R&D before they are ready for commercialization.

In addition to taking the first humans to the moon, the Apollo program introduced digital fly-by-wire technology and polybenzimidazole, a heat-resistant synthetic material used in firefighting suits. The Apollo program also paved the way for Skylab, the first U.S. space station, launched in 1973. This short-lived station introduced the Earth Resources Experiment Package (EREP), a series of photographic, infrared, and microwave sensors used to survey select portions of Earth for studying the ocean, land, and atmospheric phenomena. Since the first crew took up residence on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2000, breakthroughs in water purification, agriculture, disease research, drug development, quantum mechanics, physics, particulate matter, 3D printing, colloid research, and countless Earth-sciences continue improving life and education on the ground. But NASA’s innovations and impact certainly are not a thing of the past.

Clean technology innovation is important, and NASA is a leading innovator in the sector. Many of the agency’s endeavors, like the EREP and ISS research, also offer unique perspectives and observation opportunities for scientists and innovators combatting climate change. Although NASA did not invent the first solar cell, the agency’s prolific use and continued innovation efforts have led to high-efficiency solar cell systems. According to NASA’s technology transfer program, terrestrial applications of this technology include providing “unprecedented efficiencies for auxiliary power units in vehicles, solar roof tiles, power plants, and smart grid systems.” Similarly, NASA’s battery management systems are a critical feature for high-voltage battery systems such as electric vehicles and next-generation renewable energy innovations. One of NASA’s more intriguing clean technology innovations is solar-powered carbon dioxide (CO2) conversion, a next-generation technology that pulls CO2 out of the air prior to atmospheric emission and converts it into useful fuel.

In the communications sector, advancements and innovations introduced by NASA that benefit society include signal boosters and laser links. Signal boosters are often used in rural areas to receive and amplify distant cellular signals, and the signal booster design currently in NASA’s patent portfolio is significantly more portable than the old antenna stuck to a roof. Two of NASA’s patents related to laser links—space optical communications using laser beams and cascaded offset optical modulator—represent next-generation communication technologies with remarkable potential. Laser links between satellites can carry significant amounts of data without interfering with any other signals. These are primarily focused on space-to-space communications because visible light scatters quickly in Earth’s atmosphere, but consumers might benefit from faster and more-widely available satellite broadband service since a signal passing directly between satellites would not have to travel from Earth to space as many times.

In addition to aerospace, robotics, communications, and clean technology, NASA’s R&D portfolio includes medical and biotechnology innovation. Certain research advancements in cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, asthma, heart disease, muscle atrophy, muscular dystrophy, and bone loss are attributable to ISS research. As the COVID-19 pandemic tested and strained global health care and supply chains, NASA researchers developed a high-pressure ventilator tailored to treat COVID-19 patients. This ventilator utilizes “fewer than 100 parts, none of which were already needed in the supply chain for existing ventilator models,” and it was granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April 2020. NASA’s lifesaving technology also extends to lightweight composite air tanks used by firefighters and a portable radar device utilized by first responders to locate disaster victims under 20 feet of rubble.

NASA’s incredible history of innovation reflects the agency’s mission to support life on Earth while simultaneously reaching beyond the stars. The innovations highlighted here are only a fraction of the results from over 60 years of R&D efforts. Countless so-called “spinoff” technologies, companies, and industries derived from NASA-funded technology show the importance of IP and voluntary technology transfer to continued innovation.

Voluntary licensing systems like this can significantly increase both innovation output and societal absorption thereof. Licensing and technology transfer programs based on IP rights proliferate innovation, support entrepreneurs, fund R&D endeavors, and disseminate knowledge. Evidence of this cycle of continued innovation supported by IP is abundant throughout history and across all industries.

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