When a volcano in the South Pacific Ocean erupted in January 2022, NOAA researchers were well-equipped to study the multi-hazard event by sky and by sea. Key technologies and strategic partnerships made it possible for NOAA to issue warnings that saved lives around the world, while also collecting scientific data that will improve forecasting models and disaster response for future events.
Technology Transfer Success
Technology transfer success stories. Does not include CRADAs unless they are specifically for a technology transfer.
A record number of NOAA Cooperative Research and Development Agreements in 2021 has generated scientific and economic benefits Research partnerships are increasingly important as scientists work to address complex global problems like coastal resilience, food security, and climate change. Public-private partnerships, in particular, are vital for bringing private sector innovation and agility into NOAA’s research and development efforts. One of the key tools in NOAA’s partnership toolkit is the CRADA, or Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. A CRADA is a formal agreement that allows federal and non-federal partners to do collaborative research and further develop new science into commercially-available products. CRADAs connect NOAA Laboratories or Science Centers with private U.S. companies, universities, and other entities, creating scientific partnerships across NOAA’s mission areas. CRADAs are valuable because they allow NOAA and non-federal partners to share ideas, technical expertise, facilities, and other research materials. The NOAA Technology Partnerships Office (TPO) is responsible for managing all of NOAA’s CRADAs. During Fiscal Year 2021, TPO initiated 18 new CRADAs, which is the highest number of these agreements ever to be started in one year at NOAA. This represents a 28% increase in the total number of new CRADAs from the previous fiscal year. Furthermore, NOAA and its research partners benefitted from a total of 57 active CRADAs this year, representing an increase of 24% from 2020. The number of CRADAs at NOAA is increasing as more federal researchers and non-federal partners see the value of existing public-private research and development efforts. Collaborations between NOAA and private-sector innovators accelerate research and development that supports both NOAA’s operations and commercialization within the private sector. This is important because more people can benefit from cutting-edge scientific discoveries and inventions when they are available on the commercial market. One example of an ongoing CRADA collaboration is NOAA’s partnership with U.S. biotechnology company, Prospective Research, Inc. NOAA researchers developed a probiotic to prevent disease in oysters and then began a public-private partnership with Prospective Research to further develop and test a freeze-dried version of the formula. The new shelf-stable probiotic has been shown to increase the survival rate of oyster larvae by 20-30% and is expected to be commercially available in 2022. The probiotic has the potential to increase sustainable aquaculture production worldwide. Another partnership between NOAA and the U.S. business, Saildrone, has simultaneously increased NOAA’s capacity to conduct innovative research and provide high-quality climate services, while also directly benefiting Saildrone and the U.S economy, more broadly. NOAA and Saildrone entered into a CRADA to explore how the company’s ocean drone technology could be further developed and strategically used to collect environmental data. Saildrone’s products have since been modified to support diverse NOAA research projects in the Arctic, across fisheries, around Antarctica, and even in the eye of a hurricane. The hurricane-equipped Saildrone Explorer was recently named one of the 100 Greatest Innovations of 2021. Video footage from on board Saildrone 1045 and animation showing location in Hurricane Sam on Sept. 30, 2021. As a result of this fruitful research partnership, NOAA scientists have been able to use the newly-collected data to improve storm forecasts, fisheries management, and climate services, while Saildrone has enjoyed a significant boom in business. According to a 2019 economic valuation study, during the three years after the 2014 CRADA with NOAA was established, Saildrone expanded their workforce from eight to over 100 employees and secured over $95 million in third-party investments into their technology. This influx of interest and sales can be partially attributed to the perceived scientific rigor associated with NOAA’s involvement in Saildrone’s product development. The economic benefits of Saildrone’s technology continue to increase– in October 2021, Saildrone announced the close of its $100 million Series C funding round. The company’s continued growth and success is creating jobs in several industries and is a significant asset for U.S. economies, especially in areas where Saildrones are created and deployed. While the NOAA-Saildrone partnership has been particularly successful, the cumulative impact of more than 50 active NOAA CRADAs underway cannot be overstated from either a scientific or an economic perspective. The collaborations increase NOAA’s capacity to do scientific research, while also stimulating technological innovation and generating broad economic value for the U.S. economy, the global New Blue Economy, and individual U.S. businesses. This economic impact was particularly important during the global COVID pandemic, so it is especially notable that NOAA reached its highest-ever annual number of new CRADAs during Fiscal Year 2021. Over the next year, TPO hopes to continue to expand NOAA’s use of CRADAs as a way to create partnerships. TPO is working with NOAA scientists and engineers to help them evaluate how a CRADA or other type of research partnership can most effectively support their research objectives. TPO also serves as the lead of the Partnerships Working Group under the Science and Technology Synergy Committee of the NOAA Science Council. TPO will continue to highlight the many ways that public-private partnerships support NOAA’s mission and stimulate innovation of new products bound for the commercial market. As scientific research is called upon to inform solutions for some of society’s most pressing challenges, partnerships are essential and CRADAs unlock enormous potential for collaborative problem-solving and innovation.
POPS is a low-cost, high-sensitivity alternative to traditional aerosol measurement technologies. Story written by Miguel Aristu For many people, hiking is a peaceful escape from everyday stressors. For Dr. Ping Chen, CEO of Handix Scientific Inc., hiking was a starting point of his success. In 2015, he met NOAA inventor and research physicist, Dr. Ru-Shan Gao, on a trail in Boulder, Colorado. As they walked, Gao proudly spoke about NOAA’s recently-developed Portable Optical Particle Spectrometer (POPS) for aerosol measurement. Chen immediately realized the technology’s tremendous potential and expressed interest in licensing and commercializing the technology with a firm belief that POPS was going to be a commercial success. Indeed, with over 200 units of POPS sold across the world to date, it appears that Chen’s premonition became a reality. His new company has since grown from one to twelve full-time employees and Chen expects the demand for POPS to increase in the near future as his team actively explores new markets. Close-up image of POPS components. (Photo by Derek Parks, NOAA) Challenge – Why is aerosol measurement important? Atmospheric aerosols are microscopic solid or liquid particles that are suspended in the air, such as dust, mists, or smoke. These particles, while tiny, have major impacts on the environment, especially on weather, climate, and air quality. For example, aerosols can either scatter or absorb sunlight to produce a cooling or warming effect on the planet’s climate. Aerosols can also affect cloud formation, which is important for regulating Earth’s energy balance and the hydrological cycle. Furthermore, aerosols serve as active sites for surface chemical reactions that create ozone, which poses a threat to public health. An accurate assessment of aerosol concentration and size distribution in the atmosphere is fundamental for understanding the environmental impacts of aerosols; however, most atmospheric measurements are conducted in situations where using traditional, bulky spectrometers is quite a challenge, such as on airplanes, balloons, and small drones. The need for miniaturized spectrometer technology was very clear, and POPS seemed to be the answer. Indeed, Dr. Ru-Shan Gao, a research physicist at NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory (CSL), was working on a very long NASA Global Hawk flight when the POPS idea first came to his mind. During the flight, scientists controlled the unmanned aircraft on its mission to collect high-altitude, long-duration atmospheric data. “We were sitting at the hangar watching atmospheric data coming in for 24-hour flights, and we started wondering what we could do to make the Global Hawk more powerful. That was the starting point for our POPS research,” explained Gao. The map shows the monthly average aerosol concentration around the globe. (Image by NOAA NESDIS) Innovative Solution – Miniaturized research-grade aerosol spectrometers POPS is a compact, low-cost, high-sensitivity sensor that enables robust and reliable atmospheric measurements for air quality monitoring. POPS uses a laser to measure and count aerosol particles with diameters ranging from 140 nanometers to 2.5 micrometers. In contrast to conventional particle spectrometers, POPS is particularly suitable for use in drone and balloon missions at a wide range of altitudes from the Earth’s surface to the stratosphere. Gao’s colleagues consider him to be a master craftsman who is able to create clever one-of-a-kind scientific devices for field measurement. Gao explained that “The driving force behind the POPS invention was to develop an aerosol instrument that was small, light, and relatively inexpensive, yet sensitive and robust enough for science-quality atmospheric measurements.” He recognized that the biggest challenge would be to make the technology “miniaturized and cheap enough to become an alternative to already existing spectrometers.” 3D-printing was the ideal solution. The technology enabled Gao to shrink POPS to the size and weight of a lunch-box, simplify the manufacturing process, and cut materials costs down to $2,500. As a result, POPS are one tenth the size and one fifth the cost of traditional comparable instruments. First, second, and third generation prototypes (left to right) were developed in 2012 and 2013. The result of the 2013 NOAA OAR Special Early-Stage Experimental or Development (SEED) grant is pictured furthest right. (Photo by Ru-Shan Gao, NOAA) The Role of Technology Transfer – Handix Scientific thrives on POPS commercialization Technology partnerships allow private companies to grow and spearhead research and innovation, while also ensuring that technology developed using federal funding fulfills public and private needs. These partnerships are a win-win for both parties involved: private companies commercialize and manufacture new products, while federal labs use the resulting products to support their missions. When the news of POPS spread, Gao was contacted by a number of companies and individuals who were eager to commercialize the invention. Although Gao’s team was convinced of POPS’s commercialization potential from the very beginning, they faced a challenge. He explained, “As scientists and engineers, we had neither the ability nor the knowledge required to deal with the legal details, so we decided to reach out to Derek Parks, deputy director of NOAA’s Technology Partnerships Office.” The team brought the invention to the Technology Partnerships Office in March 2015 and made POPS immediately available for licensing. When Dr. Ping Chen heard about this innovative technology, he realized its tremendous potential and decided to license and commercialize the technology. Chen credited POPS with “Opening the door to new measurement platforms, such as drones and radiosonde balloons, that were not accessible before.” By July 2015, NOAA had negotiated the POPS license agreement with Handix Scientific. “Thanks to the Technology Partnerships Office, the entire technology transfer was rapid and painless,” declared Gao. Chen shared that to this day, his company keeps in constant communication with Gao’s research group for further opportunities, and encouraged other companies to engage with NOAA’s Technology Transfer Program. A small company Handix Scientific improved and commercialized POPS. (Photo by Handix Scientific) Defining Success – Economic impacts on Handix Scientific The economic impact to Handix Scientific has been significant. Earnings from POPS commercialization were reinvested in the company, which enabled Handix Scientific to grow from two people in 2015 to 12 full-time employees in 2021. “Currently, Handix Scientific is a very vibrant research and development company with seven Ph.D. graduates employed and close to 10 SBIR grants. We are developing several new products with federal funding support,” explained Chen. Handix Scientific has sold over 200 POPS units around the world, to date, with customers in China, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, United Kingdom, and the United States. Most of the demand for POPS comes from the research field, with scientists as the end users. The NOAA Chemical Sciences Laboratory is, in fact, the company’s biggest customer with 54 POPS units ordered so far and 28 more expected. Gao explained that this is the ultimate sign of success for a technology transfer. NOAA Labs and scientists are adept at developing new technologies, but they are not equipped to mass produce them. Transferring the technology to a private company frees up the scientists to work on the science and enables a private company to refine and mass produce the NOAA design. The company makes money and NOAA is able to procure a complete device at a lower per unit cost. Furthermore, the company expects POPS demand to increase as they are actively exploring how to break into new markets related to ambient and indoor air quality monitoring. To learn more about POPS, please view Dr. Gao’s presentation for the NOAA Innovators Series and explore related scientific publications and NOAA CSL field projects here. Media Contact: Suzi Webster, email@example.com