A small Massachusetts company, Spire Corp., is a leader in three high technology fields and its founder and president, triathlete Roger Little, is an expert on the advantages of government-developed technologies, especially NASA's.
NASA technologies made available to private businesses and entrepreneurs are the foundations for many successful companies. Spire Corp., of Bedford, MA, is a good example of a small company that grew to new heights of profitability using NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), other government, and its own technologies.
Little credits much of his company's success with the technologies originally developed by JPL for space exploration. Spire started in 1969 using ion and electron beam technologies to evaluate radiation effects on electronic components for the Department of Defense. The three divisions that stemmed from that initial activity are optoelectronics, photovoltaics manufacturing equipment and biomaterials. Optoelectronics was the trunk from which grew the other divisions, now separate but complementary.
The photovoltaic division sells capital equipment for manufacturing photovoltaic modules that convert sunlight to electricity. Spire's photovoltaic business line developed largely from participation in JPL's Flat Plate Solar Array project that existed from 1975 to 1986. The project's mission was to build an industry infrastructure to commercialize solar-generated electricity.
The biomaterials business primarily sells commercial services that use Spire's ion beam technology to treat surfaces of biomedical devices that go into the human body. Little said the company's devices were developed largely through government-funded advanced materials technology research and development programs. Customers for Spire's ion implantation originally were the photovoltaic and aerospace industries. The same process is now used for a wide variety of biomedical applications that range from implant devices to catheters.
Little took advantage of a government mechanism for stimulating private businesses, called the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Program at JPL. Information available through the SBIR solicitation, Little said, provides a description of government agency needs and the needs of the biomedical industry.
"We love the SBIR program because its intent is to commercialize technology and we're a very aggressive company," he said. "We go after those programs that complement our directions in business."
Spire went public in 1983 and currently has sales of about $20 million a year with 150 employees at the Bedford site. Today the company is the world's leading supplier of photovoltaic module manufacturing equipment with 104 customers in 33 countries..
The photovoltaics are used in many countries for power for water pumps, vaccine refrigeration, telecommunications and even mobile television for herdsmen in Mongolia. The continued development of photovoltaic resources -- a wireless source of power -- go hand-in-hand with the world-wide demand for wireless communications.
The SBIR program that Spire used is one of several programs available through NASA and some other agencies to transfer the government's considerable research and development technologies to the private sector of business. In addition to SBIR, NASA also offers Technology Cooperation Agreements where no funds are exchanged and private companies take part in NASA's research and development.
Another program called Technology Utilization provides information on new technologies on a continuing basis. Additionally, JPL has a unique program called Technology Affiliates in which companies or groups of companies join in partnerships with JPL to solve technical problems encountered by member firms.
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