NASA and its commercial partners develop a wide variety of cutting edge technologies. Would you expect much else from nine centers filled with more than 18,000 employees? That much brain power focused on the black unknown is bound to produce some pretty awesome ideas, inventions, and technologies, even if NASA doesn’t always have the money or support to fully develop and utilize the technologies. In fact, NASA has over 1,000 patents and patent applications covering a plethora of technology areas. NASA has been directed to promote rapid development and commercialization of technologies it develops via commercial partnerships. What happens when NASA doesn’t have the resources to implement a new technology it has developed? NASA offers these inventions to the public via its Patent Licensing Program (PLP).
Well known companies such as Bigelow Aerospace have been founded on technologies licensed through this program. Click through to learn more about the process of accessing NASA-developed technologies as a private enterprise.
In addition to granting partially exclusive licenses to Bigelow which forms the core of their business, the PLP grants licenses or issues notices of intent to grant licenses a few times a month, on average. On April 4, 2012, NASA announced its intention to grant the University of Central Florida an exclusive license on a gas leakage detector technology. On April 2nd, NASA announced their intent to grant Weddendorf Design a partially exclusive license for transponder technologies.
NASA’s licensing actions must be carried out in accordance with 37 CFR §404. Among other things, these federal rules require that the recipient of a license from NASA must carry out an agreed upon “plan for development…of the invention” to “bring the invention to practical application within” a specific time, and to “continue to make the benefits of the invention reasonably accessible to the public.”
When licensing its technology, NASA grants three types of licenses: exclusive, partially-exclusive, and non-exclusive. A non-exclusive license gives the licensee the ability to use the NASA technology specified in the license, but NASA is free to play the field and grant licenses to other parties, if they can. If NASA grants an exclusive license to an enterprise, the enterprise is the only entity who can utilize the technology covered by the licensed patent or patent application. Non-exclusive licenses give the licensee exclusive rights to the technology in a specific field of use. For example, Bigelow Aerospace was granted a partially-exclusive license for inflatable habitat technology. Bigelow is the exclusive purveyor of this technology for “expandable spacecraft, vehicles, modules, and the like for operation in exoatmospheric space, including applications, sales, lease, and other commercial uses or applications thereof for research and development, space tourism, and other commercial endeavors.” There is an exception to this exclusivity. NASA reserves the right to use the technology or direct others to use the technology on behalf of the United States.
In order to secure any kind of license from NASA, a prospective licensee must go through the PLP licensing process. Potential licensees must submit an application addressing the terms that will be in the final license. These terms address development and marketing of the invention, license duration, royalties, and reporting requirements. Patent licenses for NASA technologies are all individually negotiated with prospective licensees or their representatives.
According to NASA, securing a non-exclusive license takes three or four months after initial application. Securing exclusive or partially-exclusive licenses takes a little longer because there is a 15-day waiting period while NASA solicits public comment on the potential license. Because NASA has been directed to promote the utilization of its inventions in the commercial arena, the patent licensing process primarily focuses on developing a satisfactory plan to develop and market the invention and whether or not the enterprise seeking to license a given technology has the ability to carry out their proposed plan. As others have pointed out, this process effectively prevents patent trolls from buying up NASA technologies and sitting on them. NASA will license their technologies to parties that will vigorously attempt to develop those technologies. Furthermore, NASA reserves the right to modify or revoke a license they have granted if they determine that the proposed plan is not being follows and the licensee cannot show that they will take steps to use the invention in a practical way within a reasonable amount of time. Thus, NASA licenses come with a “use-it-or-lose-it” clause.
Patent license applications are treated as confidential by NASA and exempt from Freedom Of Information Act requests. The royalty terms for each license vary, depending on the size of the enterprise receiving the license, its exclusivity, and the technology involved. Generally, royalty rates vary between 2 and 8% of sales.
Listings of current NASA technologies available for license can be found here. The listings are broken down by NASA center. The licensing process may be a little different at each NASA center. An overview of the Ames Research Center licensing process can be found here.
Update: Additional licensing opportunites from government agencies, including NASA, can be found on the Federal Business Opportunities website.
NASA-specific opportunities can sometimes be found on the NASA Technology Finder.
SpaceRef also posts NASA technology licensing opportunities here.