LOVELAND – A “remarkable” experiment that’s never before been attempted.
That is how NASA officials and others have described what they’re hoping to pull off in redeveloping the Aerospace and Clean Energy technology park on the former Agilent Technologies campus.
Success will mean taking technologies developed by rocket scientists working for NASA and finding companies willing and able to convert them into commercial applications.
But it’s not as if NASA and private industry are strangers.
In fact, if all goes as planned, the ACE park could look somewhat like the NASA Research Park in northern California, which was established in 2002 and is still growing adjacent to the NASA Ames Research Center.
The park has been good for the economy of Silicon Valley and beyond, employing high-paid IT engineers, scientists and others in support of space exploration.
Likewise, ACE’s 880,000-square-foot campus is seen by the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology and the city of Loveland as a potentially huge economic boost for the region and the state, with $8 billion in projected economic benefits over the next five years.
But getting ACE going won’t be easy.
“(The NASA Research Park) grew kind of organically,” because of its focus on NASA technology and its location next to Ames, Elaine Thorndike, CEO of CMAT, said.
ACE, of course, is not located next to a major NASA research operation, so it will have to follow a different path.
In developing ACE, Thorndike said, CMAT and its partners – including Kentucky-based Cumberland and Western Resources – will have to work to attract high-tech manufacturing companies.
The other two big differences are that while the focus in California is on research and producing prototypes for the space industry, work at the ACE site will include manufacturing on products that can be used in all types of applications.
And that’s why the project is unique. “(ACE) is definitely a pilot program,” Thorndike said.
While there’s obviously risk involved in doing anything for the first time, Diana Hoyt, NASA’s manager of innovation and strategic partnerships, is confident of success.
“(ACE) is so very different because we don’t have a NASA center in Colorado,” she said. “If Colorado works the way we think it will, with the number of jobs we think will be created, then we’re looking at doing it at other sites in other areas.
“We picked Colorado because it has all the right ingredients – an educated workforce, aerospace and clean technology industries, a central location and political support,” she said.
The NASA Research Park has a lot of those ingredients, too.
It is billed as a “world-class, shared-use campus” where government, academia and industry work together.
But it’s a government-based operation focused on research, not manufacturing, Hoyt noted.
ACE will be a privately controlled complex focused, again, on manufacturing what NASA has develop in its research labs.
Hoyt noted that federal law requires NASA to move tax-supported NASA research into the private marketplace to help the nation create jobs and compete in the global economy.
ACE companies will be matched with NASA’s pending patents that are ready to license and begin manufacturing for commercialization.
“We have to do a much better job of transferring this technology into the private sector,” Hoyt said.
She said the ACE park also should be a good home for emerging technology companies that have a great idea and a prototype but don’t have the ability to scale-up to manufacturing.
She said companies now doing work with the Ames Research Center have already shown interest in ACE.
“We have several companies in California … looking to go to Colorado to do scale-up manufacturing and are in negotiations with CAMT,” she said. “Clearly, a collaborative environment like the one we’re trying to create in Colorado is just perfect for that.”
The city of Loveland is in final negotiations to sell the ACE site to Cumberland and Western for $5 million. Cumberland will be responsible for developing the site.
If it lives up to expectations, more than 80 companies could eventually set up operations on the ACE campus, producing as many as 7,000 on-site jobs and another 3,000 around the state. But that’s a long way off.
In the meantime, NASA has assigned a technical adviser, Dave Lung, to help bring companies and NASA technologies together.
“Dave is very familiar with our technologies and will meet with local companies identified by CAMT, and he’ll sort of act as a marriage broker to put the companies and technologies together,” Hoyt said.
Thorndike said CAMT is holding “technology matching” discussions with 30 Colorado companies that could be interested in manufacturing NASA technologies and forging partnerships with the agency.
Hoyt said the prospects are “extremely exciting.”
“Colorado is absolutely a perfect place for this kind of experiment,” she said. “It’s a grand experiment, but I don’t see how it can fail because all of the ingredients are there.”