IRI e-Innovation News
Putting Innovation in Space
Space: a niche research sector, the future of R&D, or, as TV would have us believe, the final frontier? Justin Kugler, Industrial R&D Lead at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), might say all three. Justin is responsible for helping companies of all sizes and across every sector figure out how to use the International Space Station (ISS) as a remote field laboratory in both novel and economically relevant ways.
An aerospace engineer with degrees from Texas A&M and Rice University, and a certificate in foresight from the University of Houston, Justin's former work includes the Central Intelligence Agency and NASA's Constellation and ISS programs. One of his main challenges at CASIS is balancing the mix of small innovators with large companies who want to use the Space Station in their research.
"Many companies today are outsourcing their R&D to universities, government labs, or small businesses," he explained. "Our stakeholders in Congress, at NASA, and on our Board of Directors, however, want to see big companies using the Space Station. My biggest challenge is finding the right balance in my portfolio between large corporate R&D initiatives and entrepreneurial innovators to keep the innovation pipeline flowing."
His challenges don't end there. He says much work is needed to convince innovators that the ISS is open to them. He recently discovered a small company pioneering in the field of microgravity-enabled materials that strongly indicated to the press that they had no interest in using the Space Station. He immediately wanted to know what path the company envisioned for itself without the only permanent research facility in space included in their efforts.
"Was it a misconception or were there barriers I needed to address?" he said. "Over a series of conversations that I initiated, I came to understand the company's needs, perceptions, and concerns. When the company came out of "stealth mode" late last year, they came to me to discuss how to use the ISS to expand their R&D portfolio and push the boundaries of their technology. We are now developing just such a research program for this company. I believe this has the potential to be the first validation of advanced materials production in Low Earth Orbit for commercial sale and open up an entirely new industry."
When asked what advice he would give young professionals entering his field, he said: "Find something that builds on your strengths, challenges you to work on your weaknesses, and keeps you intellectually and professionally fulfilled. That's different for everyone and that's okay. While I do still have the dream of one day being an astronaut, a mentor once advised me that I needed to find something that would be *enough* even if I never get to fly in space. Otherwise, it never will be *enough* and I'd drive myself and my loved ones miserable. So, while companies like SpaceX and Boeing are tackling the problem of how to make it cheaper and more reliable to get into space, I'm having a ball figuring out what you can do in space that has direct relevance and economic value here on Earth."
Read more of the June newsletter...