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The Road from R&D to Commercialization

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Valerie C. Coffey, Science Writer, [email protected]

Technology transfer programs in the US and abroad are champions to entrepreneurship, offering an effective model of how to turn ideas and innovation in photonics into commercial success.

When US legislators formed NASA in the late 1950s, exploring space and landing a man on the moon were not its only missions. In a burst of foresight and efficiency (a quality not often attributed to today’s Congress), they specified another mission: that any innovation engendered by the space program be captured, recorded, patented and made useful down on Earth. Thus began the era of technology transfer.

Technology transfer is the process of developing publicly funded research into practical, commercial technology that benefits the public. It takes novel ideas such as intellectual property, research or inventions from concept to prototype to maturity, whether toward a viable product or commercial high-volume manufacturing. The knowledge and ideas generally derive from nonprofits such as universities, hospitals, state- and federally funded government research labs and other institutions. Tech transfer offices, also called TTOs, identify promising research and then provide guidance to help researchers and individuals find funding for startup companies, or to match them up with businesses for licensing agreements or partnerships.

So many federal and state governments, universities, hospitals and other research institutions have technology transfer offices that the precise number of TTOs is hard to pin down. But for a sense of how wide a net TTOs cast, the Association of University Technology Managers cites more than 230 institutions globally that volunteer to participate in its annual activity survey, which is likely to be a fraction of the actual number in existence. The European Knowledge Transfer Association, ProTon Europe, lists 116 members in Europe. The Massachusetts Association of Technology Transfer Offices lists 31 member institutions in the Bay State alone.

One example of a well-known tech transfer outreach program is NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which matches companies involved in innovative early-stage research with specific technology gaps in agency missions. Companies or researchers compete for six-month SBIR contracts worth $125,000 or less, based on the technical merit and feasibility of their concept as well as experience, qualifications and facilities. The “SBIR select” solicitation program awards $200,000 for six months.

A result of a NASA partnership between Marshall Space Flight Center and Keymaster Inc., the Tracer is the first handheld x-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanner that can detect aluminum alloys commonly found in flight hardware. The NASA-improved XRF scanners, now manufactured by Bruker AXS Inc., can noninvasively identify the elemental composition of delicate works of art down to parts per million.

The SBIR program provides tens of millions of dollars per year to hundreds of American small businesses to facilitate projects such as modernization of air-traffic-control systems, Earth-observing spacecraft, human spaceflight missions, and projects such as the International Space Station and the Mars rovers. Companies that successfully complete the Phase I SBIR feasibility study may go on to compete for two more phases. Besides the SBIR awards, the STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) program helps transfer a technology from a research institution into small-business forays, granting $125,000 for 12 months.

Freezing snowflakes

Photonics is an industry that benefits greatly from technology transfer. For every successful photonics idea helped by tech transfer, oodles more are waiting in the wings to become the next big thing. Often, technology transfer helps these fledgling ideas sprout from their university or government lab into spinoff companies. For example, the University of Utah Technology Commercialization Office in Salt Lake City helped Tim Garrett, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, and research associate Cale Fallgatter form a spinoff company, Fallgatter Technologies, to commercialize their snowflake-imaging camera.

The Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera developed at the University of Utah and its spinoff company, Fallgatter Technologies, captures high-resolution images of a variety of snowflakes; these are simply ice crystals formed by condensation in the air.

Development of the Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera (MASC) began three years ago, funded by awards from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the US Army. The camera automatically images falling snowflakes, scientifically termed “hydrometeors,” in 3-D. The system can produce tens of thousands of images of falling hydrometeors per day at a resolution of up to 9 µm, enabling statistical modeling of fall speed, and hydrometeor size, shape, orientation and aspect ratio.

Why the need to freeze-frame snowflakes? “Better understanding of snowfall and snowflake variables may help meteorologists and climate scientists improve weather forecasting and climate models,” Garrett said.

The first MASC camera is installed at the High Alpine Research Laboratory for Diversity in Snow (HARoLDS), located at 10,000 ft in the bounds of Alta Ski Area in the Wasatch Front in Utah. Other MASC cameras are in use at Summit Station in Greenland and at Mammoth Mountain in California, with future plans for deployment at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska.

The NASA machine

NASA tech transfer, in particular, has a plethora of success stories. Early research into materials for astronaut spacesuits led to advances such as the redesigning of firefighter turnout gear from heavy leather coats and steel helmets to lighter flame-retardant materials and scuba gear, according to Daniel Lockney, program executive at NASA’s Technology Transfer Office in Washington. NASA also is credited for the design of the aerodynamic fairing that reduces drag between the cab and trailer of a semi tractor-trailor (a gem from the aerodynamic design of the space shuttle).

“Another story that identifies NASA’s tech transfer as ubiquitous is the development of synthetic omega-6 and -3 fatty acids for astronauts in spaceflight,” Lockney said. “Infant formula all over the world now contains these fatty acids that are important in the development of eyes in infants. The fatty acids are also found now in milk, yogurt, peanut butter and olive oil.”

For the past two years, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has been promoting its suite of wavefront sensing technologies and related optical processing technologies developed for the James Webb Space Telescope. The “Can You See It Now?” campaign directed to the private sector enables firms to peruse the catalog of wavefront detection algorithms, lenses, gratings, mirrors, system design simulation and testing tools, and more that are available for license. The potential market applications for the available technologies include advanced cameras, astronomy, laser communications, metrology and ocular imaging.

Goddard’s laser group is involved in the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission, NASA’s first long-duration optical communications mission (see Photonics Spectra, November 2012, p. 40). The demonstration will use lasers to transmit communications data from Earth-based ground stations to a space-based terminal. The mission is designed to provide data rates 10 to 100 times faster than current RF signals, using equipment that is smaller in size, weight and power requirements.

“We hope the LCRD technology will transfer into commercial communications technology and have significant impact,” said technology transfer manager Enidia Santiago-Arce.

Goddard also has available for licensing a nonscanning laser 3-D imager called the 16-beam Airborne Lidar Surface Topography Simulator (A-LISTS). This airplane-based time-of-flight lidar technology can obtain increased-resolution images of, say, erosion that occurs when the Mississippi floods, or vegetation growth and decline over time. One novel development from the project is a microlens array that splits a single laser into 16 beams. Another imaging device generates a 32 x 32 array from a single beam. In the future, the arrays are expected to grow and generate even higher-resolution images. The 16-beam A-LISTS and its associated technology could transfer into robotic vision, machine vision and lidar mapping.

Where are they now?

Smartphone cameras are enabled by the camera on a chip, the roots of which can be traced back to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., in the 1990s. A team led by Eric Fossum was the first to experiment in digital photography in a quest to develop smaller high-resolution cameras for interplanetary spacecraft. Fossum’s team created image sensors based on CMOS technology that are easier to manufacture than CCDs, the leading imaging sensor technology at the time. The CMOS sensor also consumed 100 times less power and was more robust and less expensive. The researchers then combined CMOS with an active-pixel sensor (APS), which integrates active amplifiers on each pixel to boost the signal generated by each photon.

From its JPL roots: Aptina Imaging Corp.’s latest 14-MP complementary metal-oxide semiconductor sensor, the AR1411HS, offers 120 fps 1080p video mode and 14-MP still-mode capabilities for consumer digital cameras.

In 1995, Fossum and colleagues founded spinoff company Photobit in Pasadena, which exclusively licensed the CMOS-APS technology from JPL. In 2001, Photobit was acquired by semiconductor memory producer Micron Technology in Boise, Idaho, and became a division of Micron Imaging Group. In 2008, Micron spun off from the group to form Aptina Imaging Corp. in San Jose, Calif. Aptina sensors are now used in one-third of all cellphone cameras and in every major brand of PC camera globally. Whereas Photobit once celebrated the milestone of 1 million sensors shipped, Aptina ships more than a million sensors per day. Technology transfer complete.


T.J. Garrett et al (2012). Fallspeed measurement and high-resolution multi-angle photography of hydrometeors in freefall. Atmos Meas Tech Discuss, Vol. 5, pp. 4827-4850.

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2013
The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
machine vision
Interpretation of an image of an object or scene through the use of optical noncontact sensing mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining information and/or controlling machines or processes.
The science of measurement, particularly of lengths and angles.
Alpina ImagingAssociation of University Technology ManagersastronomyBasic ScienceCaliforniacamerasCCDCMOScommercial high-volume manufacturingcommercial technologyCommunicationsEuropean Knowledge Transfer AssociationFallgatter TechnologiesFeaturesimagingindustrialmachine visionMarylandMassachusettsMassachusetts Association of Technology Transfer OfficesmetrologyMulti-Angle Snowflake CameraNASA SBIRNASA Technology Transfer OfficePhotobitProTon EuropeSBIR SelectSensors & Detectorssnowflake-imaging camerasspinoff companiesstartup companiestech transfer officestechnology transferTim GarrettTTOsUniversity of UtahUtahValerie C. CoffeyWashingtonlasers

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