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NASA launches entrepreneur challenge to develop innovative ideas

Stephen Kuper
NASA launches entrepreneur challenge to develop innovative ideas

NASA has officially launched a pilot Entrepreneurs Challenge to invite fresh ideas and new participants in supporting development of new instruments and technologies to advance the agency’s science exploration goals.

The agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is seeking novel ideas reflective of those currently trending in the commercial sector – particularly in areas such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics and advanced sensors. The Entrepreneurs Challenge aligns with NASA’s goal to foster innovation and develop new technologies at lower costs.

“There’s a lot of energy and fresh thinking as a result of the entrepreneurial spirit that has emerged in our field over the past few years,” said Michael Seablom, NASA’s chief technologist for science. “We want to be sure we’re not leaving good ideas on the table or missing the contributions some of these potential partners could make to the exciting science missions coming up.”

To increase participation of entrepreneurs in areas relevant to its technology portfolio, SMD will award as much as $100,000 in prize funding in a three-stage process to each selected participant.


All awardees will be given the opportunity to take part in follow-on activities provided by the agency’s Small Business Innovative Research program to learn about additional ways to work with NASA. Successful participants will contribute ideas that advance the state of the art in three broadly defined science technology focus areas, which also address the science questions posed in the National Academies’ Decadal Surveys.

For the inaugural Entrepreneurs Challenge, the areas of focus will be:

  • Advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence for autonomous spacecraft and surface rovers, as well as for Earth observation and disaster management;
  • Advanced mass spectrometry for life detection and other science applications, using instrumentation that is beyond state-of-the-art in being low-power and low-mass, and utilizing innovations in sampling technology and processes that include cutting-edge materials or components; and
  • Quantum sensors that support high precision assessments of gravity, magnetic fields, dark energy, and other measurements to support NASA science.

The prize competition will take place in three rounds. In round one, participants will submit white papers that broadly describe the capability being offered, its relevance to a specific technology area and science question, and whether the idea represents an existing product or concept to be matured over time. A judging panel will select the best 15-20 ideas to advance to the next round of the competition.

Round two is the live challenge event, where selectees will be brought together in a forum to make oral presentations about their ideas to a judging panel of NASA program managers. The event judges will select as many as 10 participants for prize awards of $20,000 each.


The participants are expected develop their technologies and flesh out their concepts into detailed proposals. Venture capital firms that have an interest in the topic areas will be invited to attend the challenge event.

In the fall, those 10 participants will then submit full descriptions of their technology ideas for as much as $80,000 in additional prize funding to SMD for evaluation in round three. Winners will be announced at the Innovation and Opportunity Conference planned for later this year.

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