NASA helps woo tech companies

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) recently formalized an ongoing effort to attract start-up technology companies to the state. The two are focused on organizations with employees who can help NASA develop new technologies, such as advanced navigation instruments, sensors, and information systems for analyzing space and earth science data.

Chris Foster, deputy secretary of DBED, said the space sector will offer many job opportunities in the years to come. “We see NASA Goddard as a key strategic asset that we market,” he said. “It’s a multibillion-dollar company, like a Fortune 500. A lot of people just don’t know it.”

And that perception is what Goddard and DBED want to change. Although the state has earned a reputation for its science research facilities, officials also want Maryland to be known as the center of information science, or informatics. Specific areas of interest include radio frequency identification, ultra-large databases and satellite communications, all of which could benefit NASA as well.

As one of the state’s largest businesses, Goddard has been a major contributor to the Maryland economy for many years in the form of salaries, payroll taxes, sales taxes and other outlays of money that circulate through the state. Now through a memorandum of understanding signed in January, the state is reciprocating by promoting the advantages of companies locating their offices near Goddard and supporting NASA’s needs.

“There are companies in the high-tech arena that are currently not doing work with NASA,” said Nona Cheeks, chief of the Office of Technology Transfer at Goddard. “We would like to reach out to these companies to see if there is a way to tweak their current technologies to meet NASA’s needs.”

DBED has a $550,000 marketing campaign that sponsors trade journal ads and workshops, for example. “NASA is a billion-dollar customer of ours,” Foster said. “You always want to make sure, with your best customers, you show them the love.”

The campaign has had some initial success. NASA’s Goddard Wallops Flight Facility, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, has attracted the attention of some aerospace companies interested in small-satellite launches. Such systems cost much less than average satellite launches and could make satellite communications more affordable for developing nations, supporters say.

An effort by a consortium of schools is under way to develop a type of minisatellite, CubeSat, with the potential to provide data connectivity at a low cost. The Hawk Institute for Space Sciences, a business unit of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, wants to extend that technology to commercial systems. Ron Bettini, the institute’s managing director, said the consortium, in cooperation with NASA, could launch the apparatus for hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of millions.

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