Audit of NASA's Process for Transferring Technology to the Government and Private Sector

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, March 1, 2012

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NASA's project managers and IPO personnel at the NASA sites we reviewed could improve their effectiveness in identifying and planning for the transfer and commercialization of technologies developed as part of Agency projects. Although technology transfer and commercialization does occur, we found a general lack of awareness of NASA policy governing the process. Specifically, personnel we interviewed did not realize the transfer potential of some technological assets, and project managers did not develop and IPO personnel did not assist in the development of Technology Commercialization Plans (Commercialization Plans). Furthermore, personnel lacked awareness of the New Technology Reporting process and were not using NTRs to identify potential technology benefits. In addition, we found that the NASA Chief Technologist, Center Chief Technologists, and Center IPOs have not effectively implemented the Agency's Technology Commercialization Policy requirements and need to conduct more outreach to NASA project managers. The decrease in resources since FY 2004 has contributed to this condition.

Consequently, NASA has missed opportunities to transfer technologies from its research and development efforts and to maximize partnerships that could provide additional resources, and industry and the public have not fully benefited from NASA-developed technologies. For example:

* Algorithms designed to enable an aircraft to fly precisely through the same airspace on multiple flights - a development that could have commercial application for improving the autopilot function of older aircraft - was not considered for technology transfer because project personnel were not aware of the various types of innovations that could be candidates for the program.

* Project personnel failed to capitalize fully on a unique NASA facility used for aeronautic testing services, the Flight Loads Laboratory at Dryden, and had to turn down commercial requests, because they did not recognize the facility as a transferable technology and consequently had not developed a Commercialization Plan to manage growing customer demand.

* Project personnel did not form partnerships with industry end-users who are a potential source of funding because they did not realize that transfer and commercialization planning could lead to such partnerships. As a result, managers of a precision landing and hazard avoidance project failed to seek commercial partnerships that could have provided additional funding to help the project mature.

NASA Personnel Lack Awareness of the Agency's Technology Transfer Policy Requirements. NASA's technology transfer policy, NPR 7500.1, states that early assessment and planning is crucial for creating commercial partnerships. Accordingly, the policy requires project personnel to develop a Commercialization Plan during a project's formulation phase. However, we interviewed 38 personnel (15 IPO officials, 2 Center Chief Technologists, 21 project managers) from 4 Centers, and found that none of them had ever developed or assisted with the development of a Commercialization Plan. Moreover, none of these individuals was familiar with the NASA policy governing technology transfer and commercialization. The Chief Technologist at NASA Headquarters, who is responsible for developing and overseeing the implementation of NASA's technology commercialization policy, conceded that working knowledge of NPR 7500.1 among NASA personnel might be lacking.

The NPR also directs the Center IPOs to assist project managers with developing Commercialization Plans. Developing such a plan is an important step for project managers because it:

* provides managers with a methodology for identifying potential commercial partners;
* allows managers to monitor and mature plans throughout the project's life cycle with targeted end-users in mind;
* allows NASA technological assets to reach the commercial sector at an accelerated pace;
* integrates the project's technical knowledge with the marketing expertise of the IPO;
* expands the opportunity for creating working and funding partnerships with industry for technology development and identification of end-users for the technology; and
* facilitates the formation of partnerships with commercial entities that may be able to contribute additional funding, staffing, and expertise to help sustain project development during periods of reduced Federal funding.

However, none of the 21 projects we reviewed had developed a Commercialization Plan. We believe this occurred, in part, because the program and project management policies managers use throughout a project's acquisition life cycle contain minimal references to technology transfer and commercialization. Specifically, NPR 7120.5D and NPR 7120.8 do not emphasize the importance of the Commercialization Plan and only require managers to describe their plan for technology transfer as a subpart of the program and project plan.15 Other contributing factors are that the Agency had not allocated resources specifically for the planning, development, and implementation of Commercialization Plans and had not trained project managers concerning the technology commercialization process. Furthermore, the Presidential Memorandum's addition of requirements to develop plans and establish performance goals to improve the Agency's technology transfer and commercialization process will further strain the available resources dedicated to NASA's technology transfer efforts.

Technological Assets Are Not Consistently Identified or Fully Understood. NASA policy defines a technological asset to include technologies, innovations, facilities, and expertise. However, NASA personnel we interviewed - including IPO representatives and Center Chief Technologists - were not aware of or did not have a clear understanding of the range of technologies that qualify as technological assets. Project managers focused primarily on hardware items such as lightweight fiber-optic sensors used for in- flight stress monitoring of aircraft structures, while overlooking other types of assets such as algorithms, software, and facilities. These oversights resulted in missed opportunities for a wider range of technology to be transferred and commercialized.

Innovators Lack Awareness of New Technology Reporting Process. We randomly selected 36 NTRs out of the 2,034 submitted to NTTS over the past 3 years and interviewed the innovator responsible for developing the technology described in each NTR. We found that none of the innovators had a clear understanding of the New Technology Reporting process.16 Specifically, innovators did not understand at what point in the process they should file NTRs, what is considered reportable technology, and what to expect after an NTR is submitted. In addition, we found that none of the innovators had received training on the NTR process.

We concluded that a lack of training and understanding of the value of filing an NTR may have resulted in the underreporting of new technologies. For example, one of the innovators stated that he was discouraged from filing additional NTRs because he did not understand the process. Another innovator stated that he only filed an NTR because it was a contractual requirement. Consequently, NASA likely is not maximizing the full potential of its research and development efforts and losing the potential benefit of royalty income generated from patented technology.

New Technology Reports Are Inaccessible. As previously discussed, IPO personnel and NASA Patent Counsel review NTRs to determine whether technology should be considered for patenting, publication in NASA Tech Briefs, or other public release. If NASA decides not to pursue any of these options, the NTR remains in NTTS, which is restricted and thus largely inaccessible to other NASA personnel. We found that of the 12,644 NTRs submitted by civil service and contractor personnel from FY 2004 through FY 2011, 6,396 (50 percent) are categorized as inactive and therefore are not easily accessible. Although IPO personnel stated that inactive NTRs might eventually result in Tech Briefs articles or software releases, they could not articulate for us the difference between inactive NTRs that are eventually published or released and those that are not.

Although NASA officials decided not to pursue patents for or make the information in these NTRs publicly available, they may still contain information that could benefit other innovators and project managers. For example, researchers filed an NTR in February 2010 for a solar thermoelectric power system designed to provide recyclable, non-toxic, on-demand solar energy that costs less than solar panels currently in use and works during off-peak hours without the use of storage batteries. NASA did not pursue a patent on this technology because the system was not fully developed or tested. Although this technology is not mature and may not have commercial potential in its present state, the NTR may contain valuable information that could encourage further technology development. Maintaining this information in a restricted database hinders NASA's ability to build on the information in these reports.

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