From robotics to analytics, why NASA is offering startups over 1,000 patents for 'free'

Startups could get a major lift from NASA if they can find a technology at the space agency that fits their commercial ambitions.

The technology areas in NASA's roadmap for the next 20 years, many of which have patents it will donate to startups. Image: NASA
US space agency NASA is offering startups a license to 15 categories of patented NASA technologies for free.

The move follows Google's offer earlier this year of 'free' patents to select startups - and it could be just as valuable given the 1,200 patented technologies available for license under NASA's new Technology Transfer Program.

NASA hopes the program will make life easier for cash-strapped startups short on intellectual property, which would effectively be repurposing NASA's existing patents for new commercial products or services.

The program is aimed at American startups and offers access to patents covering everything from electronics, communications, and software, to materials, coatings, sensors, and aeronautics technology.

The agency has also launched a new searchable database to help developers discover relevant patents.

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When a patent is put up for sale, members of the LOT Network are still protected from whatever "troll to which the patent was sold."

Examples of software patents available include its aeronautics collision avoidance software, which offers "efficient encoding process for global-scale digital terrain maps along with a real-time decoding process to locally render map data". Alternatively, startups could select its Real-Time Sonic Boom Display or its system for clock synchronization in distributed systems.

"The Startup NASA initiative leverages the results of our cutting-edge research and development so entrepreneurs can take that research - and some risks - to create new products and new services," NASA chief technologist David Miller said in a statement.

NASA has outlined what appear to be fairly reasonable rules. For example, applicants must intend to commercialize NASA's technology, and once the company starts selling a product they'll need to pay a standard net royalty fee to NASA.

"This money goes first to the inventor and then to maintaining the agency's technology transfer activities and technology advancement," NASA notes.

Also, NASA is only offering non-exclusive licenses, so the technology can be used by any firm for commercial purposes, though NASA said it is willing to consider exclusivity if the startup wishes to negotiate.

NASA's program follows the launch of Google's patent giveaway program, in which it offered up to 50 startups free access to two patent families on the condition they join the anti-patent troll LOT Network.

The LOT Network aims to reduce the risk of patents falling in the hands of a 'patent assertion entity' (PAE) by ensuring that if one member sells a patent to a PAE, all other LOT members automatically gain a license to that patent. The same happens if a LOT member is acquired by a PAE or becomes a PAE itself.

For NASA's patents, the agency said it and others have already vetted the technology available to startups for technical and commercial viability. Startups may also gain access to NASA's technical personal and facilities.

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