NASA launches venture fund for Mars technology

NASA fund created to give agency better access to technical innovation coming out of start-ups.

NASA has created a nonprofit venture capital firm to invest government money in promising but underfinanced companies, The Washington Post reports.

Red Planet Capital is the government's first foray into VC world for civilian technology, although the CIA and Defense Dept. have run funds for military technology. It's a natural development for NSA Administrator Michael D. Griffin -- a former president of the CIA fund.

"NASA could see that a lot of technical innovation is coming out of companies that don't traditionally do business with the government, and we wanted better and faster access to that creativity," said Lisa L. Lockyer, NASA program manager for the project. "The administrator has been very supportive of the idea."

She said the fund will not only invest on its own in cutting-edge companies but will also join private venture capital firms to form investment syndicates. Together, she said, those partnerships will be able to invest far more money in selected companies than the government could.

NASA will fund Red Plant to the tune of $75 million over five years, which will be managed by three veteran VC managers.

"We will invest with others in companies making products that aren't being made elsewhere and that NASA might be able to use," said Peter Banks, one of the organizers and managers of Red Planet. "We don't really expect the companies to be making products that can be used as is on the moon, or in other low-gravity environments. NASA would do the adapting once the technology is developed."

The fund is clearly focused on Mars exploration, NASA's main focus for the future.

"Our focus is not on today or the near tomorrows, since nothing from these new companies can be used before at least the three-to-five-year time frame," Banks said. "What this fund does is set a trajectory towards Mars, and human exploration of Mars."

It's not all rocket and space technology. The agency also seeks technology for keeping space travelers safe.

The kind of cosmic radiation astronauts will face if they go to Mars or remain on the moon for long periods is known to cause significant bone loss and can lead to central-nervous-system injury and increased risk of cancer. If innovators and researchers cannot find ways to protect the astronauts, then long-term space travel will be impossible.

"This kind of biomedical work is definitely something we're interested in," Lockyer said. "It could be very useful to NASA and could also come up with discoveries that will be useful to people on Earth and so could be commercially profitable."