ASK ME ANYTHING #2

On June 23rd, we hosted an "Ask Me Anything" style webinar where interested applicants had the opportunity to have their questions answered live by a panel of Starburst and NASA officials. The transcript of this session as well as the full-length video recording can be found below.

Q: Can we have supplemental video submission to aid reviewers better understand the technology? Our technology has a temporal element that cannot be clearly understood just by written text and figures.

A: We do not have a way of accommodating that. We need just the 5 page write up. You will have an opportunity to send a video during Round 2. I understand that may not be the answer you are looking for, but to make it fair we are going to have to stick to the 5 page written submission.

Q: What types of discoveries are you hoping to facilitate in ~10 years, with the help of the technologies developed in this program?

A: This is a way of getting fresh ideas from new participants rather than the usual suspects. We hope to get game-changers and things we wouldn’t have normally gotten through our regular technology programs. Specifically, we want to address the science questions that are part of our decadal surveys and you can find links to those surveys on the webpage.

Q: We want to know what kind of application areas you are looking for in quantum sensors.

A: The quantum sensors side is wide open. It’s a new emerging area. When we are talking about quantum sensors in this regard we have to be a little bit careful. Lidars are quantum sensors; there are a lot of existing applications and missions that make use of what we consider to be quantum technology. In the context of this prize competition, we are really talking about Quantum 2.0. Quantum in the sense that we are manipulating photons or atoms, we are using the property of entanglement or quantum bits (Qubits) in the superposition state. This is a new class of sensors that we don’t fully understand what the capabilities are, so we are looking for fresh ideas. Again, we are trying to address the science questions in our decadal surveys.

Q: Do you have a date established for the IOC?

A: Last year the IOC was held in Colorado and that was the case the year before. With COVID, we’re not sure when it will occur. The plan is to have it virtual and in the fall. I’m guessing it is going to be in October or November. We rarely set up a meeting like that for December.

Q: Is there a period of performance that is expected? Or is the challenge simply to provide funding to subsidize the winning ideas?

A: That’s really it. It’s meant to give the teams cash awards for the ideas. The cash award in the first tranche is $20K. That's for the elevator pitch and the 5 page white paper. Then we expect them, between July and October/November to flush out those ideas and we will have detailed instructions after Round 2 for the winning teams on what we are expecting from the third round where we get a more detailed white paper that describes the idea. We are hoping that in that timeframe we will have our program managers interacting with the teams so they can understand our technology programs a little better. With some funding on the table, we hope that will give them flexibility and buy time for them to write a formal proposal to one of our 15 technology programs.

Q: Would it be possible for one company to obtain more than one grant of $100k? We have several ideas that we'd like to submit but I don't know if we can have only one or any number of them funded, assuming of course that they are of the caliber that passes the bar.

A: Yes. If there is separability in the ideas, I don’t see any reason why there can’t be two awards. There has to be separability. It cannot be the same idea recycled into something that looks different. We will pick up on that right away. 

Q: How specific should we be about describing machine learning algorithms that we are planning on using/should we just describe the broad concepts we are planning on using?

A: If you have a new concept for a new neural net or new algorithm, we don’t need to know what it is. In fact, we do not want to know the specific details because then you are getting into proprietary information and your idea may be exposed. What we want is, “Okay we’ve got a new idea, it’s based loosely on this, this and this.” You might want to show some preliminary results if you have them. If you don’t have them, that is okay too, just explain why your idea is exciting. Don’t give away the secret sauce in any of these writeups. We do not want proprietary information or particularly ITAR information in these write ups, just the elevator pitch.

Q: At the last ASK ME ANYTHING you addressed confidential and proprietary information.  However, it was not clear where you made a distinction between the two.  On one hand you presented in the discussion that confidential information that we provide will be generally protected by implicit or explicit government and NASA protocol. On the other hand, you have stated in your written materials, that we should not include proprietary information.  Can you provide guidance on your definition of confidential information and your definition of proprietary information?

A: I can make this very simple. Assume this is going to be seen by your competitors. Don’t put anything in there that will compromise your company's ability to compete. No proprietary information should be submitted. I don’t know if there’s an exact definition of what’s confidential. We don’t need to know the intricate details of how things work. We need to know here’s the idea, here’s the general concept, and here’s why we think it’ll work. You should also provide the background you have in this area and what would give us confidence you can solve this problem. Don’t give away the secret sauce.

Q: The guidelines state that standard A4 2.5cm margins must be used. Is a standard US letter-sized page with 1" margins acceptable? Not a problem using A4 but seems unusual.

A: Yes. We are not going to be sticklers or bureaucrats. We don’t want someone submitting something in a tiny font to get extra material submitted. We are not reading page 6. Our reviewers are volunteering their time. We do not know how many white pagers we will be receiving and we have limited time with our reviewers so anything submitted beyond page 5 will not be read.

Q: Would AI technologies that assist logistical capabilities for NASA Science missions be accepted? Or possibly something that enhances the operational capabilities of an autonomous spacecraft?

A: That would be highly desirable.

Q: Should we reference specific questions from the National Academies’ Decadal Surveys that our proposed technology addresses?

A: That always helps, yes. Usually we will recognize it, but if you have something specifically that you are targeting such as “we are going to make this measurement and here it is in the decadal survey,” that is great.

 

Q: Is it recommended that we include bios or credentials of our team members?

A: Yes you should. Not formal, long write-ups. Something as short as possible so that we have confidence you can solve this problem. It could be a degree in a particular area, like computer science for AI. Even if you never went to college that is okay, but give us some understanding why (something you’ve accomplished in the past, some award you’ve received) this person can solve this problem. Don’t use up too much space. 

The 5 pages is your oyster, use it as you choose. We always say, when you address the team, make it the place where you say what makes you uniquely capable to solve those solutions and that should be it.

Q: How well developed does the business plan need to be?

A: We are not asking for business plans. We want a 5 page white paper that gives us an overview of the idea and some statement about the commercialization potential. No formal business plan please.

Q: If they have an existing technology and they are yet to prove out the marketplace for it but the core technology still really works for NASA with the business plan not defined, is that still acceptable?

A: Yes that’s fine. In fact, you may not have a commercialization plan at all. You may have something that is only good for NASA science. You may look at it and say, this probably isn;t going to be something that can be commercialized. That’s okay. We would like to be commercialized. But if it’s a one off that solves a problem, that’s perfectly fine. 

Q: If we are solo entrants, is it possible to add team members to improve fidelity of the product in later stages of the competition?

A: I don’t think there's a problem with that other than you have to be thinking about the person that originally submitted the proposal, you are the core team that should think about how they are splitting winnings. It's fine to bring someone in later. We don’t have any size limit on teams. You are going to be treated as a single team under your original group of people. If that person were to leave, that might get tricky. We are looking for the team. The stages are unique, so what you do between stages is probably fine.

Q: Can you clarify how this is meant to serve as a springboard for the SBIR process and what companies should be considering leading up to that process? 

A: When you’re making a typical proposal to the agency in a regular procurement process (which this is not, it is a prize competition) you have to have the cage code and the DUNS number and all of that. You have to write a 20 page proposal that goes through a formal process that takes anywhere from 6-11 months. What we are trying to do here is specifically avoid all of that for now and just hear your ideas. While we are talking, we can guide you to that process. If you have questions about what it takes to write a proposal to one of our programs we are here to help. We also have the SBIR program manager that will be discussing how to prepare for a Phase 1 award eventually. We are talking about maybe rolling this in as a Phase 0 at some point, but this is really just trying to get the ideas in the queue and get program managers linked up to the companies and ideas. In the course of this process, you’ll have cash to put some beer on the table for at least a month or so. Hopefully that will buy you time to write a proposal. What we are hearing from the companies is that cashflow is the issue. We are trying to get that issue resolved. Here is some cash, now you have time to put a formal proposal together while you are talking to us and we are hearing about what your ideas are.

That shouldn’t be understated. One of the benefits is that you are getting $100K but also you are getting that insider knowledge and guidance on applying for that SBIR.

A (continued): This is some real value, you are getting exposure to NASA program managers at the headquarters who run these programs. They can’t give you special leeway into the programs but they can listen to your ideas under this program. It gives you a leg up, which may be as valuable as $100K.

Q: If Entrants would like to patent these ideas, will we own the rights of the patent. If not, what is involved in owning the rights of the IP or product?

A: Under the prize competition, companies retain ownership. You retain rights, which means if you want to patent it you can. We are not going to help you patent it, that is up to you.

Q: As we talk about Phase 1, are there any nuances there to (in regards to patenting) if that is the ultimate goal?

A: I believe through all the phases of this competition, the team will retain rights to whatever they develop. In regard to SBIR, you do start to hand over rights or provide rights to NASA under SBIR.

Q: Should we include references in the white paper?

A: It would help, yes. Whatever it takes, references but not links, to other parts of the white paper. References are fine, but not a link that extends the paper. 

Q: Can you estimate the relative compute (power capability) on the tech available platforms? i.e. How well performing of a computer platform do we expect algorithms to run on?

A: On the ground you can assume that our supercomputer would be the limit. You can even argue a DOE supercomputer might be the limit. We don’t have access to the chinese super computers which are even more powerful, but we won’t go there. For onboard systems we are planning a high-performance spacecraft computer so you can probably estimate a factor of 10 over RAD750, what we have today, with a multi-core. I wouldn’t make that a limitation frankly. State what it takes to run the algorithm you are proposing. If it is reasonable, that won’t be a problem.

Q: Is it okay to have in-line references to relevant papers instead of a dedicated references section?

A: Yes. Just know, the references won’t be clicked (they won’t view those papers).

Q: Is including a canvas model helpful to your team or does it border too close to a business plan?

A: I don’t have a problem with it. When I say beware of the business plan, business plans are long and they have a lot of detail. I’m not looking for net present value or anything like that. We are just looking for your ideas that will support our science. Personalization is something we would like. It gives you extra points, but it’s not a requirement. It is desirable.

Q: How many selections will be there from each of the three categories? Is there an expected break-down?

A: No it could be anything. We are expecting a big imbalance in the white pagers (many more AI than quantum sensors). We would like to get at least one in each. Prizes will be distributed to all 3 categories if the submissions support that. We will not support a weak proposal just because it is the only one.

The Entrepreneurs Challenge is a NASA innovation program.

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