10 Reasons Biomedical R&D is the Next Big Growth Sector in Space
1. What are Techshot’s primary areas of business, and why are you interested in the biomedical R&D sector in space?
Techshot’s work since its founding more than 30 years ago has focused on developing, owning, and commercially operating a large and diverse catalog of research equipment used aboard orbiting space vehicles. The company is a provider of the high-tech “picks and shovels” that professional researchers from industry, academia, and NASA itself use to dig for new discoveries in microgravity and fractional gravity.
Company agreements with NASA and the ISS U.S. National Laboratory provide it with a guaranteed allotment of crew time and up and down mass to serve its customers, which enables it to offer a turn-key, one-stop solution to those who want to conduct research in orbit.
Techshot’s first payload conducted life science research aboard a Space Shuttle flight in the mid-1980s. And because life science research has remained the focus of the majority of its customers, the company maintains its own permanent full-time staff of Ph.D. life-science researchers, who team with Techshot engineers to design and execute effective research campaigns for its customers.
2. What excites you most about the potential for biomedical R&D to benefit from advances in space right now?
This is the golden age of human spaceflight. Never before have so many options been available to so many people to conduct biomedical R&D in microgravity – aboard aircraft in parabolic flight, suborbital rockets and spaceplanes, orbital-class capsules and space planes, and space stations.
As costs come down, more companies are getting into the game. To many, conducting biomedical R&D in microgravity is now considered just another opportunity to gain an advantage over competitors. Merck, for example, is using research in space to help develop new forms of its drugs, which can increase options for delivery methods.
It’s easy to get excited when you know that the world’s leading biomedical companies are looking to space for solutions to improve human health on Earth.
3. How does Techshot’s work in space advance biomedical R&D on Earth?
Some of the effects of sustained spaceflight on humans and animals seem to mimic aspects of the aging process, only at an accelerated rate. Biomedical R&D in space can capitalize on this phenomenon to accelerate development of improved pharmaceutical countermeasures that can improve the lives of millions of people on Earth, while also helping astronauts explore deep space for months or years at a time. For example, Techshot customers Eli Lilly, Novartis, and UCLA have tested new drug treatments for osteoporosis and muscle wasting diseases on mice aboard the ISS.
Techshot operates its own X-ray machine for mice up there, and can quickly provide on-orbit data on bone and muscle loss for mice that received or didn’t receive the new treatments. The animals quickly readapt to gravity once back on Earth, so the ability to scan them in space is critical to the studies.
Then there’s our 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF), developed in collaboration with terrestrial direct digital manufacturer nScrypt. Techshot aims to eventually be able to manufacture human organs and tissues in space from a patient’s own cells, then send that tissue back to Earth for transplantation. There is an incredibly long waiting list for donor organs, and a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs for those that receive them – drugs that shouldn’t be needed if the tissue is made from the patient’s own cells.
We do it in space because our low-viscosity bioinks only contain cells and nutrients. There is no scaffolding needed to support the space-printed cell constructs. If we printed these constructs on Earth they would collapse, and the cells from each printed layer would settle to the bottom.
Techshot already has tested the printer aboard the ISS and it worked like a champ. We’re making improvements to BFF and our tissue cassette right now before we relaunch the system aboard a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply spacecraft to the station next year.
4. How do you think biomedical R&D utilization of space and space-based technologies will change over the next 10 years?
In 10 years there will be two or three space stations in low Earth orbit, with the capacity to host more, and more-varied, types of research and biomanufacturing than is possible today. There will be at least three commercial spacecraft ready to fly industrial and institutional researchers to those stations, where they can carry out their own experiments. We may see the creation of the first on-orbit commercial contract research organization for customers who just want the data, and commercial contract in-space manufacturers for biomedical products that still need to be made there.
Most notably, biomedical R&D in space may increasingly be in the critical path to the development of more new products that improve life on Earth.
5. How are you helping to ramp up and accelerate biomedical R&D growth in space?
While Techshot already operates one of the largest catalogs of privately-operated biomedical R&D devices inside the ISS, the company is continually working to understand the needs of its customers and developing new equipment and service solutions that meet those needs. In development now, for example, is the Techshot Cell Factory, which will enable it to make large quantities of cells on orbit for use in the bioprinter and for cell therapies on Earth.
And with NASA support of the International Space Station expected to end by 2030, Techshot already has signed agreements with developers of new private space stations to explore transitioning the company’s research and manufacturing equipment to those vehicles.
6. What types of business partners do biomedical R&D companies need to succeed in space?
It is crucial that terrestrial biomedical R&D companies partner with organizations such as Techshot that understand not only the scientific challenges of working in microgravity, but also the logistical challenges, which may seem more daunting.
Experiments that are routine and benign on Earth, may in space be dangerous to astronauts or the spacecraft. Satisfying the operators of your orbiting lab that it is safe to host your research and/or manufacturing operation requires adherence to a rigorous safety and integration process that can take years to learn and execute effectively.
Conversely, space-based biomedical R&D companies need to partner with those with expert knowledge of likely-evolving federal regulatory requirements for space-manufactured products and technologies intended for human use.
7. What are the characteristics of a successful biomedical R&D employee in space? What new space jobs are you creating or anticipating for biomedical R&D to need to create in space?
Microgravity allows some engineering and scientific freedoms, but imposes its own unique set of challenges. It’s interesting to see new hires from outside the industry get alternately excited and frustrated when confronted with the realities of designing a space-based R&D campaign.
The industry is still relatively small, so the most successful employees are happy simultaneously wearing a lot of hats on multiple projects with multiple deadlines. They are creative self-starters and problem-solvers. They are endlessly curious and have an elastic mind – a requirement for a company whose every project results in a first-of-its-kind technology or technique. Oh, and those of us who’ve been here for more than 20 years also share an unbridled passion for human spaceflight.
While a handful of private corporate researchers have flown aboard space shuttles, and private institutional researchers soon will begin flying aboard suborbital space vehicles, I anticipate there will be a need for more private orbiting lab technicians and researchers 10 years from now, perhaps working for contract research and/or contract manufacturing organizations.
Besides those that will execute in-space experiments, the industry will need an influx of what every thriving industry needs: accountants, salespeople, IT experts, repair technicians, etc.
8. Are there things that make biomedical R&D successful on Earth that don’t translate successfully into space? Likewise, are there things that hold biomedical R&D back on Earth that won’t be barriers to success in space?
Many of the challenges of translating what works on Earth to success in space go beyond the science itself. Crew time aboard the ISS is very limited, and can be very expensive. Having the right equipment when and where you need it may require years of preparation, and even then, Earth-based labs will always have the latest analytical devices.
The ability to iterate quickly is particularly challenging. The time between experiment runs is improving as new vehicles come on line, but it could still take a year or two between research campaigns – something that on Earth could be repeated or iterated in days or weeks.
Experiments and manufacturing that would benefit from the lack of sedimentation (only diffusion) and convection for example, will thrive in space.
Terrestrial biomedical research can be held back by conservative, risk-averse decision making. Government peer reviewers may be reluctant to fund research that reaches too far outside the box. And corporate research and development is often reduced to a little “r” and big “D” endeavor as “next-quarter” vision fights “next decade” for company dollars.
By contrast, our peers in space research seem more willing to fund the “never done before” with a point of view that supporting revolutionary research in microgravity is a better investment than evolutionary research, which may not need to be done in space.
Our chief scientist, Dr. Gene Boland, tells me that in research “different is good.” Repeating a life science experiment in space that you’ve done on the ground for years is likely to provide a result that is different in some way. Innovation may result from the pursuit of understanding that difference.
9. How will biomedical R&D industry participation in ASCEND accelerate its growth in space?
While awareness of the value of research and manufacturing in microgravity is at an all-time high, most of the biomedical R&D industry hasn’t considered it because, I think, they don’t know what they don’t know. I believe there is a misconception that research aboard the station is mostly by NASA for NASA, e.g., research on new rocket fuels, space suits, and dehydrated meals.
The agency does conduct a lot of research aimed at preparing for deep space exploration, but parity with commercially-sponsored research using commercially-owned equipment is nearing quickly. And most of these industrial investigations have nothing, or nearly nothing, to do with deep space exploration. They are “off the Earth, for the Earth,” and often come from traditional corners of the biomedical R&D industry that are very far afield from rockets and asteroids.
Biomedical R&D industry reps participating in ASCEND may more clearly see the options available to them and become more aware of partners such as Techshot, that can answer questions and provide an easy-to-access on ramp when they’re ready.
10. On a personal note, what is the one thing that has made you successful in your career in space that might be instructive to others?
Persistence. You may not succeed at first, but do not quit. Working in the human spaceflight industry can be fast-paced, challenging, and ever-changing. It can be difficult for some to work in an organization where daily innovation is expected. Those who thrive pair persistence with curiosity, and a belief that our best days lie ahead.
Whether you are an astronaut, engineer, scientist, technician, doctor, lawyer, contracts negotiator, procurement specialist, or administrative assistant, the industry will require your best effort, every day. It can at times be daunting (if not sometimes fatiguing), but this is what it feels like to invent the future.
About Rich Boling
Rich Boling is vice president of Techshot, Inc.,which develops, owns, and operates commercial in-space research and manufacturing equipment. Since 1988, the company’s payloads have flown aboard parabolic flight aircraft, sub-orbital rockets, space shuttles, Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo vehicles, SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicles and the International Space station. Boling joined the company more than 20 years ago, and leads business development, media relations and government relations efforts.