June 13th, 2019

Techshot: Commercializing Space Technology in Greenville, Ind.

Floyd County is the second smallest county in Indiana creating some of the most exciting technology on the planet — and beyond. Techshot, founded in 1988 in Greenville, Ind., designs and manufactures machines that astronauts on the International Space Station use to run experiments. In July, the company’s 3D BioFabrication Facility, affectionately referred to as the BFF, will take flight from Cape Canaveral. The BFF is a 3D printer capable of manufacturing human tissue in the microgravity condition of space.

People expect to find dreams this big in places like California, think Elon Musk and SpaceX. But conceiving and building innovations like the BFF don’t require a fashionable address or outsize personality at the helm. Techshot proves that dreams like theirs can thrive in small, rural towns in Indiana.

How Does Techshot Do It? 

Techshot has been developing new technologies for the aerospace, defense and medical industries since 1988. Its devices have flown aboard parabolic-flight aircraft, sub-orbital rockets, space shuttles, the SpaceX Cargo Dragon and the International Space Station. Since 2015, the Techshot-designed and built Bone Densitometer has been conducting X-ray evaluations of mice in space for biopharma companies such as Novartis and Eli Lilly. Its Multi-use Variable-gravity Platform has been aboard the station since April 2018.

Not all innovative, research-based companies rely on pedestrian traffic for customers or require high-profile office space in big cities. So how do companies like Techshot launch and grow?

People are critical. Of Techshot’s 50 employees, 44 are in Greenville, and six are at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Rich Boling, VP of Corporate Advancement at Techshot, reports that roughly half of Techshot’s engineers are graduates of regional schools including Purdue University, the University of Evansville, University of Southern Indiana, the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville and the University of Cincinnati.

“You’ve got to be somewhere where you can pull from this talent pool. But then also the nature of what we’re doing attracts people from all over the country,” says Rich Boling. Easy access to a large city is also attractive. Techshot is just a 10-minute drive from downtown Louisville.

Techshot

A great relationship with Floyd County commissioners has helped Techshot secure resources including a high-speed, dedicated fiber connection to allow real-time conversations and video with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Shoring up the digital divide is a nationwide challenge. A recent study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon concluded that unlocking the digital potential for rural small businesses across the country could add $47 billion to the U.S. GDP per year. That’s small businesses; high-tech companies have to have that connectivity.

Floyd County is developing its own tech park, where Techshot may tap into other advantages. The current facility’s infrastructure limits its growth potential. It uses liquefied petroleum gas without access to natural gas, and is on a septic system as opposed to a sanitary sewer system. The Techshot facility is 22,000 square feet, with an immediate need for more lab space.

At the state level, Boling says Elevate Ventures, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) and state representatives have been supportive and engaged, proactively asking Techshot what it needs to grow and thrive in Indiana. In the southern Indiana region where Techshot is located, Elevate Ventures’ 1804 partnership nourishes new entrepreneurial endeavors today.

“As a state, we’ve worked tirelessly over the last decade to build a business-friendly environment and skilled workforce that attracts and keeps high-growth, high-tech companies like Techshot here in Indiana,” said Elaine Bedel, president of the IEDC. “When Techshot returns to Greenville after launching its BFF technology to space, we’re confident that they will continue to find success in Indiana as they expand their capabilities and develop more innovative technologies.”

Being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages. For one, it has helped Techshot attract its top talent. NASA contractors from larger cities value the quality of life and cost of living in the Greenville area.

Being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages. For one, it has helped Techshot attract its top talent. NASA contractors from larger cities value the quality of life and cost of living in the Greenville area. And it has helped attract customers.

“Not being a space company in Houston, Huntsville (Ala.), Cleveland or other places where there are multiple space companies has its advantages. We’ve been able to be successful with multiple NASA centers. There are 10 NASA centers, and we’ve worked with many of them. I think that’s because we’re not considered a ‘Johnson contractor’ or a ‘Kennedy contractor,’” Boling says.

The Company Develops and Learns

Growth has not always been steady. As many of the components of the International Space Station were nearing completion in 2001, NASA discovered that it was about $4 billion over budget. As a result, a big piece of research equipment that Techshot was developing never got launched. When that project got cancelled, Techshot was forced to lay off 53 engineers in one day.

“It was the same day I got an advance copy of Inc. magazine’s 500 fastest-growing companies in America. Techshot was 251st,” Boling recalls. This “very black day” taught Techshot the importance of diversifying its customer base. Soon after, the company started winning major contracts with the Department of Defense and federal agencies.

For about 10 years, the team designed and built technologies for a variety of customers, such as lab equipment for Procter & Gamble and warehouse inventory management systems for an Indianapolis company. There was enough demand for these $80,000 and $100,000 contracts to keep most of the team together until the space business came back to them. Today, a minimum contract value is closer to $300,000 or $400,000.

It is a lesson other entrepreneurs can heed to avoid a dark day like the one Techshot experienced: Diversify revenue streams.

It is a lesson other entrepreneurs can heed to avoid a dark day like the one Techshot experienced: Diversify revenue streams. Get multiple customers and consider different products you can offer them.

One Shuttle Door Closes, Another Opens

Business climates in every industry shift, and successful businesses are able to shift with them. When the shuttle program was shut down in 2011, some worried how Techshot would fare. Boling says that today there is actually more funding available to do things that need equipment like the kind Techshot makes.

“The ending of the shuttle program set the stage for the next big inflection point for Techshot to look at our sales, this proverbial business hockey stick that gets talked about among venture capitalists and people in those circles,” Boling says.

In 2012, NASA and the U.S. Congress designated portions of the International Space Station as a U.S. national lab, similar to earth-bound labs like Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. This opened up the International Space Station for use by other federal agencies, academic institutions and commercial companies, which have become big customers for Techshot.

“All the work we’re doing for drug companies like AstraZeneca and universities is really related to making life better for you and me on earth. We’ve been sort of accelerating this pace every year since 2012,” Boling says.

Techshot’s track record and relationships enabled it to develop its “Space Act Agreement” with NASA. The deal gives the company free access to room on completely automated cargo ships going to and from the International Space Station — SpaceX or Northrop Grumman cargo ships. This sort of ease to space saves Techshot’s customers money and makes pricing easier.

“Both of those cargo vehicles can haul thousands of pounds of stuff to the station. Providing that to us at no charge for Techshot is huge,” Boling says.

Potential Impact of the BFF for Techshot
3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF)

The 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) is the first 3D printer capable of manufacturing human tissue (including, someday, organs) in the microgravity condition of space.

Utilizing adult human cells, the BFF can 3D print viable tissue in space through technology that enables it to precisely place and build ultra-fine layers of bio-ink — layers that may be several times smaller than the width of a human hair — involving the smallest print tips in existence.

“The work that we’re doing with our bio-fabrication facility could have implications that every single American could benefit from,” Boling says. Its impact on the Greenville company could be huge. Boling compares it to Levi’s.

Not long after gold was discovered in northern California, companies sprang up to provide things like picks and shovels to hopeful miners. Levi Strauss was one of those company founders. About 20 years later, he started selling blue jeans.

“All of the science that’s going on using our equipment aboard the International Space Station, it’s not Techshot science. It’s not our experiments. It’s our customers’ experiments. We provide the picks and shovels, the equipment that scientists use to dig to make new discoveries,” Boling, says.

The BFF, however, is Techshot science and could be its blue jeans. Just as jeans eclipsed everything else Strauss sold, Boling says the BFF could completely transform Techshot.

Where Do You Go From Here?

“The BFF is physically the largest thing we’ve ever built and the most complicated thing we’ve ever built. But in its day, that chicken egg payload was the most complicated thing. So everything has always been the most complicated thing we’ve ever built,” Boling says.

“I think they always envisioned themselves building a company that wasn’t just turning the crank to make the 10th or 20th of something. They’ve always been guys who wanted to do something that has never been done before,” he says of founders Vellinger and Deuser.

The BFF is unprecedented, and it is still at least a decade away from printing organs that will be used in humans; the regulatory process alone is likely 10 years away. In addition, other factors can affect the already-risky endeavor. For example, leadership changes within the federal government can spur or slow progress.

In the meantime, Boling says they are focused on the future – putting stakes in the rural Greenville ground for future Techshot generations that will be there long after the current leadership is gone.

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