Damien Willis, Las Cruces Sun-NewsPublished 10:51 a.m. MT Oct. 5, 2019
LAS CRUCES – Innovators and inventors will descend upon the Mesilla Valley for NASA’s iTech Forum. The two-day event at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, which will take place on Monday and Tuesday, seeks to connect innovators with investors to help develop their technologies.
The purpose of the NASA iTech program, now in its third year, is to seek out cutting-edge technologies with applicability to NASA’s mission. Ten finalists for the upcoming forum were announced on Sept. 19.
NASA typically organizes two iTech cycles per year. Las Cruces was selected to host the 2019 Cycle II competition. Previous iTech cycle forums have been held in such locations as Washington, D.C., New York City, and Mountain View, Calif.
Ideas submitted to this NASA iTech Cycle relate to four main technology areas, including energy storage density, power-efficient technologies, medical breakthroughs, as well as radiation protection, mitigation and hardware. A fifth area, referred to as X-factor innovations, includes technologies that might not fit under the other topics but could significantly impact space exploration, according to the agency’s website.
On Monday and Tuesday, the 10 finalists will present their ideas to NASA representatives, space industry leaders and potential investors. Three winning teams will be selected and recognized with non-monetary awards during a ceremony at the conclusion of the event.
While the winning teams are not awarded any money, NASA will provide them with continued mentorship to help further develop their technologies for the commercial market. And all the participants will have the opportunity to discuss their concepts with private investors. Since the program’s inception less than three years ago, iTech participants have gone on to leverage $410 million in private investments.
A local finalist
By coincidence, a Las Cruces-based company is among this cycle’s 10 finalists. H-Trap One founder Luis Morales was studying biochemistry at New Mexico State University when he learned of a fascinating discovery. Geoffrey Smith, a professor of environmental microbiology, was working with doctoral student David Johnson on a waste-to-gas project — converting manure to energy — when they discovered something unique.
“They discovered this organism that was producing a biopolymer — like a plastic, almost,” Morales told the Sun-News. “And that biopolymer was trapping some gas. When they tested the gas, they found it to be hydrogen.”
They were able to secure grants and investigate it further, Morales said, and eventually the intellectual property was secured through two patents. The H2 Elastomer is produced by yeast. Because it is produced by a living organism, it is also environmentally friendly. Morales believes it may be useful in reducing the dependence on oil and coal for energy and plastic production.