Johnson Space Center Campus Looks to Support NASA Entrepreneurs

The shuttering of NASA’s space shuttle program two years ago was felt most acutely in the Houston suburbs, home to the Johnson Space Center. In the aftermath, corporate boosters scrambled to keep talent in the area in order to preserve some of the economic engine that the space program brought to the city.

The result is the Johnson Space Center campus, a business incubator and accelerator run by the Houston Technology Center, which opened last November and is designed to help get off the ground the youngest of startups—the entrepreneur armed with an idea.

“NASA didn’t hire dumb people,” says Tim Budzik, the managing director of the JSC campus. “These are smart people. They’re going to have to do something else to get a job, and you don’t want to lose that capability.”

The campus doesn’t set up classes of entrepreneurs that graduate after a year’s curriculum, or a bootcamp session, like many other programs do. Instead Budzik says the program operates more like a matchmaker, setting up budding entrepreneurs with seasoned peers who can offer individual attention and advice.

Of course, the JSC campus would be hard-pressed to make up for 18,000 jobs, both directly at and related to NASA, that were lost or endangered when Congressional leaders cut back the space center’s programs. But the effort is designed to give a leg up to budding startups and, perhaps, enhance the entrepreneurial potential of one of the nation’s biggest institutions.

I spoke to Budzik (pictured) about the new program and some of its startups. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

Xconomy: Why set up this campus? How did it come about?

Tim Budzik: Right after the announcement of the retirement of the Shuttle program two years ago and the cancellation of the Constellation [human spaceflight] program, a proposal was put into the governor’s office saying, what are we going to do with all these NASA engineers that are being laid off? The Texas Emerging Technology Fund kicked in about $245,000, with a stipulation that the other part will have to come from area businesses. We started in February last year to match the state funds. Local businessmen such as Jim McIngvale from Gallery Furniture and institutions such as the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation raised an additional $250,000. We are increasing our direct area sponsors, but we anticipate it will take about three years to be self-supported by area contributions.

In September last year, we negotiated a contract to move into Building 35 onsite [at the Johnson Space Center].

X: What did you fear would happen without such outreach?

TB: It all revolves around money. There were 5,000 jobs lost at the space center because of the Constellation’s cancellation and the Shuttle’s retirement. If you expand that to include incidental or secondary businesses that lost employees, that’s about 18,000 lost jobs or affected jobs. In economic terms for the [Houston] Bay Area, that’s a huge impact. It would have a very negative effect on housing prices, the tax base, the viability of these communities. Not to mention the loss of their intellectual capabilities.

X: How many entrepreneurs are you working with currently? What technologies from NASA-related entrepreneurs do you hope to commercialize?

TB: We have 14 clients right now. We are introducing industry to NASA capabilities and technologies to promote collaboration with NASA. We are working on two client companies right now that are working to take a technology that NASA developed and commercialize it. I have an inventor who wants to commercialize an idea. We tie him up with business-minded folks to help build the business plan.

We have a Lockheed engineer who works on the Orion program [a vehicle that could take astronauts to an asteroid for sample-collecting]. He has a construction material, a UV-curable inflatable panel. It comes out like a rolled-up blanket. You inflate it, leave it in the sun for 15 minutes, and it becomes solid. It can stop a bullet.

It’s a lightweight alternative for someone putting up plywood on windows for hurricanes; you could apply this to construction panels, for an inflatable structure for temporary housing, use it as hangar doors. Given that it can stop a bullet, there could be military applications.

X: What is your relationship with the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office at JSC?

TB: We work with that organization almost daily; they are very receptive. The whole idea of the Emerging Technology Fund is to help develop high-tech jobs of the future. NASA has a whole lot of technologies that are still being developed. They can’t afford to develop that technology in a silo. Why not try to work together?

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