BOULDER — A pair of University of Colorado Boulder researchers have launched a startup company with the aim of reducing the cost and increasing the efficiency of conducting experiments in space, thus making such research much more accessible to scientists on Earth.
The hope is that doing so will aid in the fights against pressing issues such as antibiotic resistance by providing a more powerful research platform for testing new drugs and examining how bacteria develop and evolve because of the accelerated effects microgravity tends to have on bacteria.
The Space Research Co. — founded in January 2015 by Christine Fanchiang and Luis Zea — is likely two to three years away from serving its first customer. But the duo got a nice boost of confidence earlier this month from taking third place in the CU New Venture Challenge, a cross-campus business pitch competition for students and faculty that allows the entrepreneurs to work with mentors and hone their business ideas over the course of a few months.
Zea earned his doctorate in aerospace engineering from CU last year and currently is a research associate at the school. Fanchiang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad who worked at Northrup Grumman, is working on her own doctorate in the same field at CU.
“It’s been so helpful coming from an engineering background and not understanding what investors are looking for or what it takes to build a business,” Fanchiang said of the New Venture Challenge.
TRSCo’s model is two-pronged. One aspect is to provide the service of helping scientists get their experiments launched into space, interfacing with NASA to make sure the experiments are being conducted with approved hardware and meet all of the space agency’s requirements. The second aspect is in the hardware that TRSCo is creating.
TRSCo is developing a microfluidics platform in which tiny amounts of fluid would control experiment samples so that the entire experiment can fit on a 3-D printed card the size of a credit card. Those cards would be inserted into a 4-inch, sensor-filled “biocube” that conducts the experiments, gathers results and enables genetic analysis. The cubes also would be capable of transmitting the databack to the scientists on Earth so that they don’t have to wait for the return of their samples months later.
The automation aspect of the biocubes would make life easier for astronauts on the International Space Station, who have limited time and dozens of experiments to conduct.
The decreased size of the experiments also helps significantly reduce costs for scientists. While sending an experiment to space now can cost $250,000 to $1 million depending on complexity, Fanchiang said TRSCo is hoping to bring that cost down to a range of $10,000 to $350,000.
“The smaller you can make these things, the cheaper it is for everybody,” she said.
TRSCo’s service-based model isn’t unlike that of BioServe Space Technologies, a center housed in CU’s engineering school that helps scientists translate experiments into a form that can be easily conducted in space. Both Fanchiang and Zea, in fact, have worked at BioServe during their time at CU, learning how to send science into space. But Fanchiang said BioServe is generally dealing with larger and more complex growth systems that require lots of astronaut time. TRSCo would be focused on experiments looking at genetic changes that require less human involvement.
The size and automation aspects of the biocubes also raise the possibility that TRSCo could send experiments into space that could be conducted somewhere other than the space station. While the ISS is TRSCo’s initial aim, the growing demand for commercial space services means the company conceivably could send experiments to space to be conducted aboard unmanned spacecraft or even to be launched from micro satellites.
“Because we’re automating it, we have a lot of other options besides just the International Space Station,” Fanchiang said.
While the possibilities are exciting, Fanchiang knows her company has a long road ahead. Startup costs have been only about $5,000 so far, but she estimates that it will take $800,000 to get to commercialization, money the company is hoping primarily to pull in from SBIR grants for which it has applied. Contingent upon funding, she said, the goal is to have a prototype by the end of this year and to have hardware launched and on the space station by the end of next year for testing.
“We’re fairly new at this,” Fanchiang said, “so we’re trying to figure out exactly what hardware we need to make it helpful to the scientists.”
Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943, 970-416-7343 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @joshlindenstein