Starting Small: To develop big ideas

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson of Expedition 39 activated the red, blue and green LED lights of the Veggie plant growth system on May 7, 2014 that was developed by ORBITEC.. Credit; NASA

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson of Expedition 39 activated the red, blue and green LED lights of the Veggie plant growth system on May 7, 2014 that was developed by ORBITEC.. Credit; NASA

Soon after three engineers left Battelle Columbus Laboratories to establish Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) in 1988, they won their first NASA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract. Since then, the firm has built a thriving business on the propulsion, life support and biotechnology work that often began under SBIR contracts for NASA, the U.S. Air Force and other government agencies.

“We’ve won hundreds of SBIRs and have taken viable technology and commercialized it where possible,” said Paul Zamprelli, business director for Madison, Wisconsin-based ORBITEC, a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corp. “We also use the technology in products we provide to prime contractors, NASA, the Air Force and other government agencies.”

ORBITEC is a small business success story. About 60 engineers worked there when Sierra Nevada purchased ORBITEC in 2014. It is continuing to grow rapidly. By the end of 2017, ORBITEC will employ about 150 engineers, Zamprelli said.

NASA’s SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are designed to nurture fledgling firms. Companies with fewer than 500 employees can compete for SBIR funding to help NASA meet its research and development goals. To receive STTR money, a small business must join forces with a university or other nonprofit research institution.

In 2015, NASA handed out approximately $181 million in SBIR and STTR funds to meet its own needs, while spurring technological innovation, creating jobs and encouraging the participation of businesses owned by women and minorities. That work led to the creation of 2,175 U.S. jobs and added about $474 million to the U.S. economy in jobs and tax revenue, according to NASA’s Economic Impact Report 2016: NASA SBIR/STTR Programs.

“For every dollar that goes into the SBIR program, an average of $3 goes into the economy, creating jobs and products,” said Carlos Torrez, NASA’s SBIR and STTR program manager.

ORBITEC, for example, is selling commercial versions of Veggie, the food production system it began developing under SBIR and later sent to the International Space Station, to customers around the world, including universities and government agencies.

With SBIR funding and internal investment, ORBITEC also developed the environmental control systems and the engines Sierra Nevada is installing in its Dream Chaser, one of three cargo ships NASA selected to resupply the ISS.

Now that ORBITEC is part of Sierra Nevada, it is no longer eligible to compete for SBIR feasibility studies or research and development contracts. However, ORBITEC can still apply for NASA funding to move technology the company developed through past SBIR contracts into government programs or commercial markets.

In addition, ORBITEC is reaching out to small companies. “We open our arms to team with any small companies,” Zamprelli said. “We will support small businesses like the larger companies supported us.”

Techshot Inc. of Greenville, Indiana is another SBIR success story. Established in 1988 by two engineers, the firm, then called Space Hardware Optimization Technology, quickly began winning SBIR contracts.

“SBIR has been a big piece of how we get the spark started,” said Rich Boling, Techshot vice president.

Techshot’s Bone Densitometer, an X-ray machine developed through SBIR, traveled to the space station in 2014 on a SpaceX Dragon cargo flight. It remains in the orbiting outpost where it is used to measure bone and muscle loss of mice in space and to test bone loss countermeasures and treatments.. Credit: Techshot

Techshot’s Bone Densitometer, an X-ray machine developed through SBIR, traveled to the space station in 2014 on a SpaceX Dragon cargo flight. It remains in the orbiting outpost where it is used to measure bone and muscle loss of mice in space and to test bone loss countermeasures and treatments.. Credit: Techshot

Techshot’s Bone Densitometer, an X-ray machine developed through SBIR, traveled to the space station in 2014 on a SpaceX Dragon cargo flight. It remains in the orbiting outpost where it is used to measure bone and muscle loss of mice in space and to test bone loss countermeasures and treatments.

Techshot also used SBIR funding to develop the Analytical Containment Transfer Tool (ACT2), a device that looks like a syringe and is used to house and transfer biological samples in orbit. Since April, astronauts have been using two of the devices on the space station. A third ACT is scheduled for launch next year.

Techshot has grown to a staff of 32. In 2010, it spun off Techshot Lighting to manufacture and sell the rugged, energy-efficient light-emitting diodes it developed for military tents.

“SBIR has been a field leveler,” said Boling. “We are not near any NASA centers or major military installations, but SBIR has enabled us participate fully in government programs.”

SBIR also gave Techshot a chance to experiment. “We can’t bet the company on every crazy idea,” Boling said. “Through SBIR, we are able to test some of the crazy ideas and some of them work.”