Small Business Administration (SBA) AANHPI Profile: How a Small Business Microscope Was Sent to the Stars Through a Small Business Program

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NASA astronaut Kayla Barron sets up the Mochii microscope. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Like other tech companies, Christopher Own’s Voxa started in a garage. Voxa is a Seattle-based startup that creates accessible nanoscale measurement and analysis instruments for exploring Earth and space at the smallest length scales.

Voxa’s Mochii electron microscope was sent into orbit in 2020 on Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo capsule. Mochii is the size of a coffee maker and controlled by an iPad. It allows astronauts to examine samples in space while scientists on Earth can operate the microscope remotely and examine data at the same time.

Before Mochii, astronauts sent samples to Earth for examination. Own said sending an object to Earth would often take up to six months and risk complications such as the sample shifting during travel or reacting differently to gravity before it could be analyzed. Mochii solves this dilemma by providing direct results “in situ” or at the time and place of discovery.

Mochii was recently used by astronauts Kayla Baron and Matthias Maurer who used it to scan samples like a Martian meteorite. They said the Mochii offered a bright future for present and future space missions. Mochii operates on the International Space Station as the ISS Mochii National Laboratory (ISS-NL), and was able to do so with the help of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

“We’re really proud to be a small company that had very limited resources and to have SBIR’s support to help us make this product a reality,” Own said.

The SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs allow small businesses to showcase their research and development for the opportunity to commercialize with US government assistance through monetary means.

The goals of the program are to develop technological innovation, meet federal research and development needs, encourage the participation of marginalized groups, and increase the private commercialization of small businesses.

The SBIR program has three phases. Voxa received $125,000 from Phase I, which is the testing phase of the program that seeks proof of concept. The scholarships range from $50,000 to $250,000 for six months for the SBIR program or one year for the STTR program.

Phase II continues the research and development of Phase I, with funding based on the achievements of the primary phase. Usually, only companies that have won the Phase I grant are eligible for this phase, and the awards are $750,000 for two years.

Phase III is aimed at commercialization, after the research and development stages of the first two phases. This phase is not funded.

“SBA has been really instrumental in supporting small businesses, and COVID Disaster Relief has been invaluable to small businesses, including ours,” Own said. “It is not only restaurants, service companies, dental and medical practices, but also innovative companies that have been supported by SBA.”

According to Own, the SBIR program did well to support Voxa by allowing its conceptual ideas to take off. He recommends that other small businesses interested in applying to the program ensure that their products or businesses have a clear impact and meet a market need.

Another thing Own insists on is persistence throughout the application process, as Voxa had to apply twice to the program to be accepted.

He applied in 2016 and again until his proposal was approved in 2017. He said during his application that there were 1,600 small business submissions nationwide and just under 400 projects. had been selected.

“We were one of those projects that are a high-risk, high-reward type of SBIR projects, but we went through it and executed it, and we were able to get the results. [to NASA] on this SBIR,” Own said.

From there Own was able to continue to develop Mochii and attracted interest from several divisions of NASA and Japan where he created a spaceflight version of Mochii and it entered orbit in 2020 to serve the public. American.

Mochii is used on Earth at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, a local college in Thailand to analyze soil samples, as well as on the ocean floor and in other locations around the world.

The Mochii microscope, taken from the Voxa lab. Photo by Joshua Trujillo.

Mochii followed the classic phases of being a concept from research and development to commercialization through the assistance of the SBIR program. It is now part of the backbone of a dozen central facilities that the International Space Station offers to the international public for research in microgravity.

The SBIR program also supported some of the platform technology that helped produce Voxa’s Blade product line, which helps map the human brain. Own said Voxa is interested in participating in future SBIR programs for Project Artemis, which aims to support sending a team of female astronauts to the Moon, as well as supporting future mineral analysis on the surface of Mars. .

“The technology that was aided by government funds actually has a direct spin-off to the success of a product that people can use on Earth,” Own said. “You can now buy a Mochii on Earth that’s basically the same one that’s on the space station. It’s a great example of trickle-down technology.

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