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Houston’s TCC Aims to Help NASA Find Energy, Biotech Partners

Xconomy Texas — 

Turns out, even internationally renowned institutions like NASA need a little help making a connection.

In the post-Shuttle era, federal funding has dropped and its traditional project-management relationship with outside partners has failed to provide the support to tackle NASA’s goals. Now, in hopes of finding a new path to industry partners, the Houston-based Johnson Space Center is one of about a dozen founding partners in the Houston-based Technology Collaboration Center, or TCC

“That’s what we are at TCC, a match.com for organizations looking to do partnerships,” says Bob Prochnow, the center’s executive director.

Joking aside, the match-making metaphor makes sense. The TCC, announced late last year, is designed to figure out the best way to leverage Houston’s considerable brain power in energy, life science, and business to help NASA innovate in a new era. “JSC has been looking for some time for how they can create more partnerships with the outside industry and academic community,” Prochnow says.

In particular, Prochnow says that the TCC is looking to bring together partners who might not normally work together, like energy and life sciences companies. “We wanted to assemble a core group that we thought could make rapid progress,” he says.

So far, the TCC is comprised of 13 institutions including the JSC, Shell Oil’s Game Changer program, Rice University, the University of Houston, and the Texas Medical Center.

Among the first goals of the TCC includes an effort to create a common set of contracts that partnering institutions can use as templates when working with NASA on projects. “Right now, every time you have a new set of partners, you have to do a new set of agreements,” Prochnow says. “We want to create the ‘Fast Launch’ program so it’s not so time-consuming to set up new projects.”

Next year, he says the TCC hopes to offer what he calls a “collaboration concierge service” that would receive project requests from partners with a particular project and help them create a customized team from among the membership. “The TCC will not be directly involved with the technology development,” Prochnow says. “We don’t want to compete with the organizations, just help them quickly contract the project.”

Prochnow has had some experience in boosting commercialization in his role as director of the Gulf Coast Regional Center for Innovation and Commercialization, or GCRCIC, the Houston area affiliate that processes applications for grants from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. (He will remain at Gulf Coast center even as he leads the TCC.) There, he says he began a quarterly program of events on topics relevant to innovation in the Houston economy. These have tackled topics such as robotics, telemedicine, and water quality. An event on knowledge management technology is planned for June.

The drop in oil prices since highs of about $100 a year ago has had an impact on the group’s progress, Prochnow says: “Some of the partners we had at the table last summer, their budgets are tighter. They don’t have as much funding as they planned.”

But that just helps the TCC retain its focus on acting like a lean startup, he adds. “Take a lesson from the dotcom days,” he says. “It’s probably better not to have more money than you can spend.”