For about two months, each team went through the “customer discovery” process with their respective technology. Customer discovery is the first step in building a successful startup or business, with the end goal of determining who the potential customers are and whether the idea (or technology) will be of interest to them.
Normally, this process is done by identifying a need in the market and designing a product or service around that need. However, the Executive MBA students were tasked with taking existing NASA technologies and identifying specific business applications for them.
Essentially, they were asked to reverse engineer the customer discovery process.
“It was difficult to have innovative, one-of-a-kind technology from NASA, but not knowing what problem it solves in a particular market,” said Christopher Gaines, member of the ALL-Insulation team. “The products have value for NASA and space exploration, but do they have value in a commercial terrestrial environment?
“Critical thinking allowed us to see which technologies had the best potential to start a business,” said Jonathan Wendland, member of the Aqua Entrée team. “The key was to understand which technology had the best potential for other commercial uses. “
The teams had the advantage of being able to interact with the inventors of the technologies, obtaining a technical overview of their respective innovations.
“It was also very rewarding and enjoyable to work with the inventor of the technology, Jacob Torres,” said Randy Wood, member of the Aqua Entrée team. “His proposal to provide fresh food and vegetables in a zero / low gravity space environment (Passive Porous Tube Nutrient Delivery System, or PPTNDS) presented several possible uses on earth.”
Each team worked like a start-up, performing market research, customer interviews and competitive analysis. At the end of the module, each team presented their business plan pitch to a panel of professors and NASA T2X staff.
The result was a successful module and, perhaps, some marketing ideas. “About two of the 12 have expressed an interest in commercializing the technology,” Townsend said.
The benefit for Executive MBA students of having real access to NASA technologies in an entrepreneurial exercise is obvious. But what is the benefit for NASA?
“We see universities as a hub for innovation,” McShane said. “We want to be connected to universities in a number of different ways, and that’s a great place to start.”
Christie Funk, T2X Program Manager, explained that “We want to engage with academia, industry, entrepreneurship and start-up sectors. It’s a great opportunity to have a different perspective, to get feedback on business applications around our technology. It provides the perspective that we don’t always get from inside the agency.
Much of the innovation comes from NASA research, but public-private partnerships are essential in developing and translating this research into products and services that benefit society.
The evolution of collaboration between faculty and staff at Virginia Tech with NASA staff has created the conditions for the emergence of what is called The New Horizons Collaborative at Virginia Tech. The goal of The New Horizons Collaborative at Virginia Tech is to “advance the next generation of entrepreneurs to create and cultivate cutting edge ‘deep tech’ and science-based businesses through public-private partnerships between Pamplin College of Business and the Virginia Tech Tech Center. Research Park in conjunction with the NASA Space Technology Missions Directorate (T2X) Transfer Expansion Program, Hampton University and other public and private partners.
The success of the first “launch” of the collaboration between the Executive MBA and the T2U programs has resulted in its sustainability; the fall 2021 cohort will work with three new technologies.
“We are looking for ways to expand the program to also include undergraduate courses,” Townsend said.
“Through this partnership with NASA, Virginia Tech students will take humans far beyond the moon and into the stars. “