An MBA Class Project That's Out of This World

The arm of NASA's Curiosity rover, showing the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), on Mars, on Sept. 5, 2012 Photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Apparently, MBAs are from Mars, or at least that’s where they get their business ideas. As part of the elective course, Technology Feasibility, at the USC Marshall School of Business, a team of students that included aspiring MBAs and engineers developed a startup idea around the commercialization of technology used on the Mars Curiosity Rover, which landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5 on a mission to determine if the planet ever hosted life.

The team worked closely with classroom guest David Scott, a senior scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was established by the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s and is now responsible for the Mars Curiosity Rover. After developing a laser spectrometer to identify and analyze large and complex molecules on Mars, Scott needed assistance making the technology marketable. He miniaturized the spectrometer, so it was handheld. Unlike most laser-based technology, it can detect larger chemicals.

With only 15 weeks to launch a startup as part of the course, which is a requirement for anyone earning the Certificate in Technology Commercialization, the team spent much of its time choosing which practical use it could sell to customers, says Jennifer Chang, a team member and 2012 MBA graduate. The group explored a number of possibilities, including using the technology to prevent contamination of high-tech “clean rooms” used for medical research in Japan by detecting a chemical found in sushi on the breath of lab workers. A meeting with the Transportation Security Administration helped the team decide to market the technology as a wand to detect chemical residue on people at the airport to prevent explosives from being smuggled onto aircraft. The device’s accuracy was particularly appealing, says Chang.

Although Chang is now working in marketing at the startup Perfect Market in Pasadena, Calif., she keeps in touch with Scott, who continues to pursue the idea of a security wand, which is in the very early stages of the commercialization process, she says. “Much of the technology scientists develop has a broad range of applications,” says Chang. Inventors “don’t have the talent to commercialize it. USC is changing that.” Chang adds that putting groups of students from different fields, such as business and engineering, on teams together provides momentum for technology startups.

Kathleen Allen, professor and director of the USC Marshall Center for Technology Commercialization, credits this team for moving the ball forward. She said the members helped Scott by bringing a new perspective and fresh ideas to the project, which she says was quite difficult. “Usually, our teams start with a need in the market, but this was different,” she says. “This was a solution looking for a problem.” Although the goal of the students should be to start a business at the end of the course, Allen says she still considers the Mars rover team a success.

Indeed, Chang says that the biggest lesson she gained was discovering how many applications one can find for a new technology. She was also impressed by the science. “Watch the video of the Mars science lab landing. It’s the most insane thing in the world,” says Chang. “We are privileged in America to have these capabilities, and we need to use the technology to its fullest potential.”

For their effort, the team members have had their names imprinted on one of the rover’s microchips, a small token of appreciation on a planet 170 million miles away.

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