STTR Success: HBCU Research Capabilities Help Bring 3D Electronics Printing to the Marketplace
eForge prototype built with the assistance of STTR funding. Photo credit: Morningbird Media Corporation
The NASA Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program invests in great ideas from across the country and provides support to the innovators and entrepreneurs who bring those ideas to life. Dr. Chance Glenn, who currently serves as the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Houston-Victoria, is one such innovator. As the Founder, President, and CEO of Morningbird Media Corporation in Huntsville, Alabama, his company is responsible for the Electronic Alchemy eForge, a 3D electronics printer designed to help NASA support long-duration missions. The eForge was created by Morningbird Media in partnership with NASA and Alabama A&M University (AAMU), a historically Black college or university (HBCU), through the STTR program.
While small businesses have the option to subcontract with research institutions (RIs) to fulfill an SBIR contract, STTR makes this relationship paramount by requiring that at least 33% (and up to 70%) of the work be subcontracted to the RI. As an experienced small business owner who has worked on SBIR contracts and a well-versed researcher who served as the Dean of Engineering at AAMU when he founded Morningbird Media in 2012, Dr. Glenn knew the potential inherent in combining the company’s IP with the capabilities of the AAMU researchers. When it came time to grow his new business, he knew that STTR was the right vehicle to help.
– Dr. Chance Glenn, Founder, President, and CEO of Morningbird Media Corporation
“I had conceptualized the idea for the eForge and began working on it,” said Dr. Glenn, “but I knew I wanted to leverage the resources the university had to do testing and materials development.” This emphasis on materials development was critical. To successfully print functional electronic components, the Morningbird Media team had to do more than develop a new kind of 3D printer: they needed to create new printable materials with conductive, resistive, capacitive, semiconducting, and insulating properties. With these materials and a printer that could successfully make use of them, NASA could gain the ability to print electronic components on demand, a development that could lessen launch mass for future NASA missions and outfit mission crews with the ability to recycle or repair technology as needed.
“In an STTR, you’re leveraging the resources, expertise, and experience of a university and its research and development capabilities to a small business that doesn’t necessarily have access to all those resources in order to develop a product for commercialization,” said Dr. Glenn. In the case of the eForge, the work of the AAMU researchers led to the development of six new materials with electronic properties—all of which have been submitted for patents. This is one of the STTR program’s chief goals: to transfer technology developed by small businesses in partnership with research institutions to the marketplace. In October 2019, Morningbird Media launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise additional funds for the eForge. The team achieved their funding goal within three hours of launching the campaign, and in the process secured customers outside of NASA who could develop new applications for 3D electronics printing right here on Earth.
Dr. Glenn working on the eForge. Photo credit: Morningbird Media Corporation
For small businesses new to working with university research teams, it is important to understand academic schedules, discuss sharing intellectual property, and connect to the right folks within the university. At 13 months, the STTR Phase I contract period is longer than the SBIR Phase I contract period of six months, in part to provide space for this learning to occur.
Universities must also learn how to work with small businesses to participate in the SBIR/STTR program. While universities typically pursue grants to fund research, NASA SBIR and STTR awards are contracts. Though contracts introduce added requirements and deadlines, they also bring stability to funding that doesn’t always exist with grants. Understanding that the NASA STTR program can provide funding, prestige, and industry experience to RIs partnering with small businesses —and that similar opportunities can come from other government contracts—Dr. Glenn worked to establish AAMU-RISE to help the university leverage federal contracts by bringing together the various research disciplines at AAMU.
A successful STTR partnership requires time, effort, and attention. For Dr. Glenn, there’s no doubt that the effort was worth it. “We took our company from almost like vapor to a product that we’re about to sell to the market. We’ve got intellectual property patents that have been filed, we’ve interacted with investors, we’ve had a Kickstarter campaign and raised a record amount of money—all because of STTR.”