Updated Oct. 26.
Lazarus 3D, Analytical Space and One Milo were the top three winners of the NASA iTech Forum, a pitch competition designed to engage entrepreneurs in developing the next generation of space exploration technologies.
Analytical Space is a satellite networking company, while One Milo is a compact medical testing company. The winners were announced Friday at the NASA iTech Forum in Hartford, Connecticut. Winners receive six months of additional mentorship from NASA to help bring their ideas to the market.
When it comes to the next generation of space exploration, scientists don’t know the answer to many questions. Just to name a few: What’s the best way to store power for an extraterrestrial colony or how do we better incorporate wearable tech or how do we safely perform surgery in space?
Jacque Zaneveld, of the startup Lazarus 3D Printing, said he believes they have part of the answer: 3-D printed tissue and organ replicas.
Lazarus 3D is one of the 10 finalists for the NASA iTech challenge, where startups present their terrestrial products to investors and NASA technologists for potential space applications. Companies will pitch Thursday and Friday to see if their technologies impress.
WATCH | Lazarus 3D Win NASA iTech Forum (6:11)
“Currently — thank god — no one has ever done a serious surgery in space,” he said. “But the first time that happens, we want to make sure our astronauts are as prepared as possible.”
A hard replica of an infant skull is printing in the company’s cramped Houston office. But the real magic is a soft replica of an individual’s organ they made using proprietary printers and precision MRI scans. Their current focus is making it possible for doctors to perform a trial-run on high-risk surgeries — like removing a tumor from a kidney — on lifelike replicas of the patient’s actual kidney or tumor.
But in space, Lazarus’ focus is more ambitious. Since things like zero gravity surgery are untestable on Earth, he said NASA should send entire replicas of each astronaut to space.
“Rather than just having a random medical model, it could be a model of Scott Parazynski, one of the astronauts,” he said.
Mason Harrup, chief scientist for San Antonio-based New Dominion Enterprises, left a prestigious job after decades as a scientist at Idaho National Laboratory. to focus on battery technology he had created there.
“As a small boy, I was crushed to learn I would never enter Starfleet Academy,” he said. “The best that I can do as a terrestrial scientist is to try and make that happen for future generations.”
With his modifications, lithium-ion batteries last longer and are less likely to generate heat, which means no more battery fires that have caused exploding smartphones and e-cigarettes and grounded Boeing 787s.
By replacing components of the battery, he said the stability of lithium-ion batteries might be right for electrical grid storage on some far off colony.
Jay Fraser, co-founder of New Dominion, said despite Harrup always considering space as a market, it never occurred to him.
“I understood the application of this material to Defense Department projects, but Mason clearly has a vision as to the application of this material to space,” Fraser said.
That is pretty normal, said NASA iTech founder Kira Blackwell.
Most startups don’t create businesses for space, but when tells them NASA may be interested in their technology, “after they pick their chin off of the table. They’re usually pretty excited,” she said.
And that’s great for NASA, she added, because so many technologies are flourishing outside of the government sphere, especially in artificial intelligence and automation. Blackwell said she pushed for the start of the program to encourage entrepreneurs to pitch new technologies. Now, in the fifth iteration of iTech, NASA has convinced dozens of companies that space may be an option without spending money on earlier stages of hardware development.
That’s because iTech allows NASA scientists to stay abreast of the latest technologies. In the two years since the competition began, one company has received a grant for small business innovation to research plasma combustion and another is testing a vibration based warning system in a NASA facility.
“It’s a unique way we are leveraging innovative technologies without spending the money at earlier stages,” she said.
While winning startups don’t get a big check, nor a lucrative government contract, they get exposure and an endorsement from NASA. With investors and companies like Lockheed Martin in the audience, it paid off for the past 40 finalists.
“Those 40 companies have leveraged $237 million in private investment dollars without federal matching dollars or anything like that,” she said, pointing out that this is a self-reported number to the agency and not verified.
Also, the romantic notion of having your product assist in exploring the cosmos is powerful, said Irene Brinker, CEO of Austin-based wearable biomonitoring company Devali.
“The fact that something that I created, something I ideated, could help people do that ... it would mean a lot,” she said.
Five of the 10 finalists are from Texas: three from Houston, one from San Antonio and one from Austin, which Blackwell attributes to a previous event held there earlier this year. Ten more “pre-selection” events are scheduled next year.