Like other tech companies, Christopher Own’s Voxa started out in a garage. Voxa is a Seattle-based startup developing accessible nanoscale measurement and analysis tools to explore Earth and space at the smallest length scales.
Voxa’s Mochii electron microscope was launched in 2020 on the Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo pod. Mochii is the size of a coffee maker and is controlled by an iPad. It allows astronauts to examine samples in space while scientists on Earth can operate the microscope remotely while reviewing the data.
Before Mochii, astronauts sent samples to Earth for study. According to Own, sending an item to Earth would often take up to six months and risked complications such as: the evolution of the sample during the voyage or some other response 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 last used by astronauts Kayla Baron and Matthias Maurer, who used it to scan samples such as a Martian meteorite. They said the Mochii offers a bright future for current and future space missions. Mochii operates on the International Space Station as Mochii ISS National Laboratory (ISS-NL) and has been able to do so with the help of the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR).
“We’re really proud to be a tiny company with very limited resources and the benefit of SBIR support to help us make this product a reality,” Own said.
The SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs allow small companies to showcase their research and development for an opportunity to commercialize it with US government funding.
The objectives of the program are to encourage technological innovation, meet federal research and development needs, encourage participation by marginalized groups, and encourage private commercialization of small businesses.
The SBIR program consists of three phases. Voxa received $125,000 from Phase I, the program’s testing phase, which seeks to demonstrate proof of concept. Awards 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 primary phase achievements. Typically, only companies that have received the Phase I grant are eligible for this phase, and pricing is $750,000 for two years.
Phase III seeks commercialization following the research and development phases of the first two phases. This phase is not funded.
“SBA has been really instrumental in helping small businesses, and the COVID disaster relief has been really valuable to small businesses, including ours,” Own said. “Not only restaurants, service companies, dentists and medical practices, but also innovation companies have been supported by SBA.”
According to Own, the SBIR program did well to help Voxa get its conceptual ideas off the ground. He advises other small businesses who wish to apply to the program to ensure their products or businesses have a clear impact and meet a market need.
Another thing Own emphasizes 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 bid there were 1,600 submissions from small companies across the country, and fewer than 400 projects were selected.
“We were one of those projects that are high-risk, high-reward SBIR projects, but we pulled through and executed, and we delivered the results successfully [to NASA] on this SBIR,” Own said.
From there, Own was able to develop Mochii and attracted the interest of several departments at NASA and Japan, where he developed a spaceflight version of Mochii that went into orbit in 2020 to serve the American public.
Mochii is used on Earth at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, a local middle school, in Thailand to analyze soil samples, as well as on the ocean floor and other locations around the world.
Mochii followed the classic phases of a concept from research and development to commercialization with the support of the SBIR program. It is now part of the backbone of about a dozen core facilities that the International Space Station offers to the international public for microgravity research.
The SBIR program also supported some of the platform technologies that helped produce Voxa’s Blade line of products, which help map the human brain. According to Own, Voxa is interested in participating in the upcoming SBIR programs for the Artemis project, which aims to support sending a team of female astronauts to the moon as well as future analysis of minerals on the surface of Mars.
“The technology that has been supported by government funding actually has a direct impact on the success of a product that people on Earth can use,” Own said. “You can now buy a Mochii on Earth, which is basically the same as the one on the space station. This is a great example of trickle down technology.”