Shoulder pads to launchpads: NASA to help NFL players start space tech start-ups


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NASA is teaming up with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to help pro football players build businesses using technologies originally developed for spaceflight, according to a federal Space Act Agreement signed in May but not previously reported.

Under the two-year pact, the space agency will hold a series of “technology transfer” workshops with interested players this summer. The athletes will tour NASA facilities, talk with rocket scientists and identify patents of particular interest. NASA could then license the technologies to new player-owned start-ups, or engage in what it calls “collaborative partnerships” with them.

NASA is required by law to transfer technologies to the private sector for commercialization. Past spin-off successes include digital camera sensors, GPS technology, memory foam, invisible braces and even enriched baby food. The agency has a large program called Technology Transfer dedicated to seeking out new business models and partnerships.

NASA reports and presentations claim more than 1,800 spin-offs, with an average annual revenue of $1 million and supporting more than 14,400 jobs. The agency estimates that its health and safety technologies, from heart pumps to whole-plane parachutes, have saved more than 440,000 lives.

One of the NFLPA’s roles is helping players transition to new careers after their retirement from football. According to the agreement, “The NFLPA has found that a growing number of its members have interest in engaging in technology start-up businesses as the basis for their second career.”

After the NFLPA organized a tour of Silicon Valley tech companies in 2016, New York Jets offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum wrote: “While I might be a 6-foot-3, 300-pound offensive lineman, I have ideas on what I want to do outside of football. So to hear someone who is part of a cutting-edge innovation … asking us for our input was an eye-opener.”

Last year, Seattle Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson founded TraceMe, a social media app designed to connect celebrities to their fans with videos and other content. The NFLPA is also part of One Team Collective, a venture capital-backed business accelerator for companies wanting to leverage NFL players’ fame and expertise.

Neither NASA nor the NFLPA responded to requests for comment, although the filing noted, “The proposed agreement [is] an example of how NASA can work with a nontraditional organization to realize benefits to both organizations, as well as to the American public.”

Though NASA has not yet transferred any of its technology to NFL start-ups, several football players have taken the opposite route.

Former NFL player Leland Melvin was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1986 before a hamstring injury forced him to retire. In 1988, Melvin joined NASA’s Langley Research Center as an engineer, and was eventually selected as an astronaut, flying on two Space Shuttle missions to the International Space Station. A former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback, Darryl Gaines, works at NASA in a senior role at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.

Image: Leland Melvin, Russell WIlson
Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, left, with astronaut Leland Melvin at The 2017 MAKERS Conference. Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for AOL file

The first workshop under the agreement was scheduled for last month, but NASA did not respond to questions about whether it took place. Another workshop was to follow in February around the time of Super Bowl LIII.

If the workshops do yield new start-ups, some players could discover that a career in the NFL pales in comparison with a second career that is truly out of this world.

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