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Monday, March 27, 2023

How NASA Built a Shark Tank for Space Inventions

Heather Potters is trying to get to the point. On a stage at Denver's Air & Space museum, an 182,000 square-foot space filled with decommissioned aircraft, she stands in front of a PowerPoint presentation and describes her company's no-needle syringes, which can deliver vaccines by accelerating the liquid into a superfast stream that punctures the skin. Two Air Force jets point their noses at each other to her left, facing off, just like Potters and the other participants in tonight’s NASA iTech competition.

But Potters isn't competing with other medical startups for bio money. Here at NASA's iTech competition, the cofounder of PharmaJet is vying for access to expert advice from the space agency. She and 14 other researchers are pitching diverse terrestrial technologies that they hope to level up to space. Each team has three minutes each—after which “shark music,” an off-brand Jaws theme, plays them out like a shepherd’s crook—to convince a panel of judges (not including Barbara Corcoran or Mark Cuban) they are worthy of the agency's wisdom. Tonight's winner will become one of 10 finalists chosen from similar events across the country, who will then compete for just three mentorship slots.

PharmaJet—which could eliminate the possibility of rogue medical needles floating in microgravity, puncturing spacesuits and whatnot—seems like a solid contender. It already has dozens of patent claims, is FDA approved, has gotten DoD projects, and has vaccinated people against H1N1 and polio. The company, Potters says, has raised $55 million. It's odd to see a later-stage company like PharmaJet here, seeking "mentorship." But sometimes even mature companies need a booster to get into orbit.

Potters takes four minutes of questions, at the end of which the second movement of shark music will play. Then she returns to the side of the stage, where she'll wait for the others to finish their seven minutes in heaven.

With iTech, NASA is hoping to find outsiders who—with their fast commercial timelines—can build their product into something the agency needs. The program started in September 2016 under the leadership of strategist Kira Blackwell, who used to consult with tech firms. During each “cycle,” of which this is the third, Blackwell trawls conferences, approaches booths, and asks whether, say, a robot surgeon could help your friendly local space agency. Because, after all, most space tech isn't made of magical space-unicorn parts: It's electronics; it's software; it's fans; it's textiles; it's nuts and bolts.

“After they pick their chin up off the table,” says Blackwell, “they’re like, ‘Wow I’ve never thought about that.’”

Once they're at the competition, the room isn't just full of judges: It's also full of potential investors, such as Space Angels or big companies like Lockheed Martin, both of which were represented in Denver. The 20 previous finalists have raised $210 million in 15 months. It’s good that money is coming from somewhere—because it isn’t coming from NASA. By simply sharing its insights with the winners, the agency is trying to support companies that it may later want to contract with. “We know we can’t do things by ourselves,” says James Reuter, acting associate administrator at NASA's space technology directorate.

They can't do things like, say, develop all the robots future-NASA might need. As such, iTech presenter Timothy Morrissey has a directive for the Denver judges. “I want you to take a moment and think about robots,” he says. Morrissey is part of Artimus Robotics—“Artemis” being the Greek goddess of hunting and wild animals, "Artimus" being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drummer, and (more relevant here) "Artimus" also being a portmanteau of “artificial” and “muscles.” Morrissey gestures around the room, toward the stilled fighter jets, the mock Apollo capsule.

There are thousands, he says, maybe tens of thousands, of actuators—the parts of a machine responsible for moving other parts of the machine—in this room. In aerospace, after all, stuff needs to move, on the whole and component levels. On the screen behind Morrissey, an elasticky artificial muscle pumps a gallon jug of blue liquid up and down, up and down. Rep after rep.

There’s a pitch on space wifi; there’s a Bluetooth-connected measuring device, so spacewalking astronauts don’t have to carry space clipboards and space pencils. A robotic refueling system first made with military vehicles in mind, a risk-analysis algorithm that could tell NASA that their projects have a 43 percent 95 percent chance of missing a deadline (not to mention any names, but JAMES WEBB).

After around two hours of lightning presentations, the judges go off to deliberate. While they’re off in some room, Colorado's aerospace and defense industry champion Jay Lindell takes the stage. “Here we are with aerospace spread all around us,” he says. In a literal sense, he means the bombers and gliders and spaceship replicas. But it’s a metaphor, too, for Colorado itself, which ranks first in the country for aerospace jobs per capita. More than 180 space-centric companies have offices here, and 500 do indirect work, supplying parts and the like. You can’t throw a rock in the Front Range without hitting a prime contractor. That’s why iTech held its first in-person qualifying event here.

After Lindell finishes extolling Colorado’s virtues, Blackwell returns and, without much ceremony at all, delivers the judges’ decision: Artimus Robotics will move on to the final forum, where its reps will rep its reps once again.

One problem, though, as a questioning judge pointed out: Temperatures in space are not as moderate as those on Earth. Our own muscles don’t work so well when it's frigid. Would Artimus’?

They’re working on it, Morrissey said.

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