Engineering Student Teams Reach the Space Race Challenge Semi-Finals

The Space Race Challenge encourages engineers, students and the public to develop marketable products based on NASA technologies.

Getting the funding for space exploration and developing new technologies is something that NASA has struggled with over the last decade, despite impassioned pleas for the US government to invest in the organization, even from such popular science ambassadors as Neil deGrasse Tyson.

This past summer, NASA turned some of their attention elsewhere, marrying business savvy with engineering knowledge in the Space Race Challenge. This challenge gives contestants access to a dozen of NASA’s technical inventions, then challenges them to create and successfully pitch a business plan to market those technologies for applications in the private sector.

At stake is the opportunity for a business license under NASA, access to investor funding, and the continued assistance of the minds at the Center for the Advancement of Innovation (CAI) to make it all happen. The contest is divided into three phases: in the first phase, the teams were asked to submit short-form proposals in the form of two to three minute “elevator pitch” videos. These videos were then judged both by the contest’s judges and by their overall popularity on YouTube.

The second phase elaborates on this, getting the semi-finalists to expand their ideas into a 10-page business plan for further evaluation. The last phase will see the few remaining teams incorporating their business, applying for a NASA license and the chance to raise up to $1.2 million from investors to get the whole thing off the ground.

The ideas still in the running through the contest’s ongoing semifinals are as varied as they are fascinating. For instance, the team at the University of Texas – El Paso campus sees potential applications for a self-rerouting wire to advance the shelf life of satellites, airplanes and power plants. Their Smartwire has the ability to detect short circuits and autonomously re-route power to alternate paths, saving money on power and potentially preventing catastrophic failures.

Another group, this one from the University of Guelph, wants to use NASA’s advanced drone technology for the recovery of weather balloons, returning them to a location where teams can retrieve and reuse them. Currently, a significant number of weather balloons launched are never seen again, costing time and resources in creating new ones, so a “capture and retrieve” drone would certainly find its fans in the meteorological sector.

Northern Illinois University, on the other hand, shows that modular UAV technology has multiple applications. They created Mission: Improbable, an educational program which uses the customizable modules of NASA’s drones as a teaching tool for primary and middle school students. In the program, children will be given certain problems where they will have to choose the best components to put into their drone to accomplish certain goals. The Illinois team sees this as a great way to get kids involved in the STEM fields, letting them experience robotics and programming firsthand. We’re inclined to agree!


Even the housing sector is ripe for innovation, according to the crew referring to themselves only as “The Technology Hub.” Their pitch idea makes use of the same anti-noise liners that surround major engines in launch craft, and puts them to work for residential homes in high-white-noise settings (such as near airports). The liners significantly reduce noise and could help mitigate the negative outcomes of continued exposure to noise pollution.

In addition to teaching aspiring engineers the kinds of business skills often not included in traditional engineering education, the Space Race Challenge also presents an opportunity for minds from across the globe to collaborate. More than a quarter of the teams are based abroad, from Germany and Mexico, and even Canada. David Hill, one of the judges for the contest and VP of Airbus, describes the kinds of inventions coming out of NASA as “the lifeblood of the aerospace industry.”

The contest also serves more than just the teams themselves. As the teams attempt to market their ideas to potential buyers, the exposure to these technologies also puts the spotlight on NASA itself, reminding the world of the kinds of developments made possible by its funding, and encouraging them to open up their hearts (and chequebooks) in the future.

With more than 30 semi-finalists, the multitude of projects are too abundant to list here. You can check out the complete list of teams, and all of their elevator pitch videos at the Space Race Start-Up Challenge website.

We’re looking forward to hearing the announcement of the finalists, and will keep you updated on the exciting developments!