Space for Innovation
A unique agreement between New York Institute of Technology and NASA provides real-world experiences for students.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) innovations have laid the groundwork for many products we use every day, from the computer mouse and ear thermometer, to memory foam and dustbusters, to ski boots and CAT scans.
And now, thanks to an innovative new agreement between NASA and Long Island, N.Y.-based New York Institute of Technology, other products that may one day join that list include a robotic therapy vest for patients with neurological impairments and a high-tech C-gauge to measure cord tension in parachutes, bridge cables and beyond. And an interdisciplinary team of New York Tech students stands to play a role in realizing that goal by building prototypes for these future products.
In late 2021, NASA contracted with New York Tech’s College of Engineering and Computing Sciences and its Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation Center (ETIC) to have ETIC student employees build technology prototypes based on existing NASA patents and develop professional marketing materials that the agency can use in efforts to commercialize the technology.
Currently, seven New York Tech students are working to fulfill the terms of the NASA contract, which runs through August 2022. Computer science, mechanical engineering, and electrical and computer engineering majors were selected to build the prototypes based on the NASA patents, and digital art students are developing instructional and marketing videos and web pages to help present the products to investors.
“The purpose of this agreement is to provide an operational structure and framework for NASA to move various unrealized and undeveloped intellectual property further towards commercialization through prototyping and production services available at New York Tech’s Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation Center,” says Samantha Kilgore, a technology liaison in the Strategic Partnership Office of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Sky-High Potential as NASA Contractor
“The sky is the limit in terms of potential opportunities for New York Tech students through this relationship,” says ETIC Director Michael Nizich, Ph.D. “This first contract includes seven students, but it’s possible that over time, several dozen from across the university could be working toward building or supporting NASA products, in addition to pursuing internships and perhaps a full-time position at NASA after graduation.”
“Importantly, this work is guided by a performance-based contract. It is not a grant and serves as a pilot for New York Tech to demonstrate our rich and talented resources in terms of our labs, facilities, students, and their faculty advisors,” says Babak Beheshti, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences.
For this first project, “we reviewed patents of interest provided by NASA for viability and high probability of success. We based our decisions and selections on our skillsets and facilities, as well as our ability to complete the job. NASA agreed to the patents we selected, so we have developed a plan and statement of work, including work description, estimated hours, deliverables, and timeframe. This truly exemplifies that our students are makers and doers who are well on the way to reinventing the future.”
Under the leadership of Beheshti and Nizich, the ETIC refined its strategy a few years ago to focus on opportunities for engineering and computer science students to build early-phase technology prototypes for local and regional startup companies.
Building a Network and Reputation for Success
The ETIC was funded in 2015 through a grant from New York State’s Empire State Development (ESD) Division of Science, Technology and Innovation. In 2019, Nizich was contacted by the ESD on behalf of a local (Long Island) startup, Grub Guard, which needed a technology solution built from a patent it was filing. Students working at the ETIC subsequently built the first prototype technology solution for Grub Guard and the software to control it.
During Grub Guard’s fundraising efforts for the prototype, its principals met the NASA Technology Transfer Office/Commercialization Services team, who requested to speak to New York Tech after viewing the Grub Guard prototype.
“After being connected with NASA, we worked to explain the ETIC’s programs and services and the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences’ labs and facilities, student capabilities, and engagement,” explains Nizich, who is also an adjunct associate professor of computer science. “NASA ultimately requested a proposal for us to take various unrealized NASA patents that they see can potentially be commercialized and then create early-phase prototypes of those technologies for NASA to demonstrate to their industry partners.”
From Patent to Prototype
The students are now busy building the first series of prototypes, according to the patent guidelines. They provide NASA with periodic updates and reports, including text-based reports, photos, and videos of their work and collaboration.
“It is entirely possible that, as we are building the prototypes to specification, we’ll create some new technology or component in the process. This kind of unique New York Tech innovation could end up benefitting businesses in the region and providing additional capability to outside companies,” Beheshti says. “It’s very exciting.”
"[NASA has] 1,800 to 2,000 patents that they don’t have prototypes for,” says Nizich, noting that agency’s patents sometimes are filed away as researchers drive to complete major projects, leaving a rich vein of ideas with commercial potential.
After consulting with NASA, the ETIC team selected four projects for the initial contract:
- A wearable robotic exoskeleton jacket that could help victims of stroke or traumatic brain injury move their shoulders and elbows. The technology could potentially be incorporated into future spacesuits to augment human performance.
- A film with sensors that detect the trajectory, location, and impact of a projectile or other object. The technology could be used on satellites or in earthbound applications to detect munitions, burglaries, or vehicle collisions.
- A C-shaped metal device that monitors tension on everything from the lines of a parachute to the cable of a suspension bridge and transmits that data.
- A system that uses distinctive electric patterns of the human heart muscle monitored at multiple points on the limbs to verify identity. The algorithm could be used in law enforcement, financial transactions, and other applications.
ETIC’s NASA contract ultimately could also lead to job creation as companies on Long Island or elsewhere see potential in commercializing these patents, Nizich says. “We chose products that are achievable.”