A NASA program matches NMSU researchers with small business owners who need technical expertise.
by Ellen Davis
Fifteen years ago, Española real estate developer Walter Gould obtained the mineral rights to 165 acres of land in the Rio Chama area that a friend’s father had mined in the 1950s. The mine contains diatomaceous earth, a material that has a variety of applications, from swimming pool filters to insecticides.
Although Gould knew the mine contained diatomaceous earth, he had no idea how pure it was.
“There was no one here who could test it for me,” Gould says.
Last April, Gould sent some samples of his material to David Rockstraw, a chemical engineering professor at NMSU. Using a scanning electron microscope, Rockstraw was able to determine that Gould’s diatomaceous earth was of a very high grade.
“That made me feel a lot better about going ahead with the project,” Gould says.
Gould is one of more than 80 small business owners who have turned to NMSU researchers for expertise through the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP), a program sponsored by NASA that provides a vehicle for its contractors to make their expertise available to small businesses. NMSU is considered a NASA contractor because it receives more than $32.6 million in research funding from the agency.
The SATOP program was started in 2001 and operates in four states: New Mexico, New York, Florida and Texas. NMSU has participated in the program since 2002, and its involvement has grown each year. SATOP now considers NMSU to be one of its platinum, or highest level, participants. Platinum participants contribute more than 1,000 hours a year to the program. Only five of the nearly 50 corporations and universities that participate in SATOP have reached this level, and NMSU is the only university to do so.
“NMSU has been an excellent partner and has brought a variety of expertise to the SATOP program,” says New Mexico SATOP Director DeAnza Valencia.
Projects across the country
In the past three years, nearly 20 NMSU faculty members in departments ranging from Chemistry to Extension Plant Science have assisted with SATOP projects. Most of the businesses they have worked with have been in New Mexico, but there have been a few from all over the country, including California, Florida, New York and Virginia. Faculty members receive a small stipend from NASA for each project on which they work.
“Part of our mission as a land-grant university is to be an economic engine for the state,” says Maureen Camunez, director of intellectual property and technology transfer and NMSU SATOP coordinator. “This program also gives our students and faculty members an opportunity to work with small businesses in solving their product development problems.”
Gould is one of more than a dozen SATOP clients that Rockstraw has worked with in the past two years. His other clients have included a salvage company in Florida that wanted to know the composition of some metal ingots it found on a shipwreck and a Las Cruces company that wants to manufacture a “solar still” to provide drinking water in remote locations.
“It gives me something else to do besides lectures,” Rockstraw jokes. But on a more serious note, he says that work he has done for SATOP customers has also given him some ideas for future research projects. He is waiting to hear whether the National Science Foundation will fund a proposal he wrote that came out of a SATOP project.
Vincent Choo, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has been among the faculty members most involved with the SATOP program. Choo, whose field of research is composite materials, has worked with more than 20 companies as a result of the program. One of the projects he is proudest of is one in which he helped a Houston company that refurbishes large turbines. The company needed help finding a way to assess the quality of the turbines after they were refurbished.
Choo was able to use the ultrasound equipment he has in his lab to demonstrate that a new method of ultrasound could be used for this job.
Choo says he likes working on SATOP projects because they help him understand what is needed in the business world. He shared his experience on the ultrasound project, for example, with students in several of his materials classes.
Choo says the projects also help him expand his own knowledge.
“Many of these projects require me to do some research so that I can find out what is state of the art and build on that,” Choo says.
Variety of expertise available
Small business owners who receive assistance through the SATOP program can tap into NMSU’s expertise in a variety of areas. If they need help building a prototype, for example, they can turn to the Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC) in NMSU’s College of Engineering.
This is exactly what Santa Fe businessmen Jim Cady and Richard Glickman did when they needed help with a new line of bath accessories for their company called Silver Zebra Design.
“We had an opportunity to get our products into Home Depot’s EXPO design stores, but first we needed to show that we had the capability to do it,” Cady says.
At M-TEC, engineering technology student Tim Kelly of Alamogordo took the lead on working out the design details by using computer-based modeling. M-TEC’s manufacturing experts then suggested that aluminum be used for the new product line because it could be powder-coated and applied with a patina.
“M-TEC did a fabulous job for us,” Cady says.
Cady and Glickman are still waiting to hear if Home Depot will carry their product, but if not, they plan to find another retailer to carry it.
In the meantime, Kelly has gotten involved with several other SATOP projects, including two for a Santa Fe woman who runs an art school. In one project, he came up with a design for a backpack that can serve as a portable art center. Kelly designed legs that fold out of the backpack and enable it to stand up like a table. In the other project, he helped design an in-house art supply holder that is disguised as an end table.
“Working on SATOP projects has really improved my proficiency in computer-aided design,” Kelly says. “I also have learned a lot about dealing with customer wants and needs. Thanks to SATOP, I have quite a few different projects in my portfolio and I can show that I have project management skills.”
SATOP clients who need help with a business plan can request assistance from NMSU’s Arrowhead Center, which was formed last year to assist innovators who want to turn their ideas into profit.
After learning from Rockstraw that his land contained a valuable commodity, Gould went to the Arrowhead Center for advice on how to proceed. Kevin Boberg, director of the Arrowhead Center, prepared an assessment for Gould that included the potential market for his product, the applications, the competition, and the price he could charge for it. The Arrowhead Center research team identified and recommended several market opportunities and ways to capitalize upon them.
Gould is trying to set up a facility in Española where the material could be brought for initial processing and packaging. He then plans to sell it to a cosmetic company for use as a face powder or exfoliant.
“The university has helped me immensely,” Gould says.
NMSU has received several awards for its participation in SATOP. Last May, it received SATOP’s award for the Best Performing Silver Alliance Partner. At the awards ceremony, New Mexico Congressman Tom Udall noted that to date, SATOP had created 219 jobs nationwide and had a $134 million economic impact.
Walter Gould hopes that someday, his new mining venture will add to those numbers.
For more information: www.SpaceTechSolutions.com