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Intuitive Machines brings space tech down to Earth

We recently spoke with Mark Gittleman, Executive Vice President at Intuitive Machines, a “product development think tank” in Houston, Texas, that offers engineering services based on a deep NASA pedigree. Gittleman was previously head of the space division of Oceaneering, a large oil and gas services company specializing in offshore and other harsh environments, where NASA was his primary customer. There he met Steve Altemus, who was the Director of Engineering at Johnson Space Center (and later Deputy Director). After a successful and exciting skunkworks-type project developing a new lunar lander, Altemus and his team left NASA seeking a more entrepreneurial, permanently skunkworky environment, and started Intuitive in 2012. It currently has 45 employees, pulled from NASA, U.S. National Labs, industry and academia.

The company’s main revenue-generating activity is engineering services, but Gittleman told us that Intuitive’s differentiator is rapidly commercializing space technologies for Houston’s three major industries: space, energy and medicine. As an example of the company’s speed to market, Gittleman described the company’s development of an autonomous orbit-to-earth sample return vehicle in less than 12 months — the blink of an eye in aerospace time — using open-source software from NASA. It applied similar fundamental navigation principles and software to create:

  • Software for cybersecurity. Intuitive is developing three cybersecurity technologies derived from aerospace flight control systems, including a “next generation” antivirus scanner, endpoint (e.g., mobile phone or IoT device) protection and network communication security. For example, its Ender endpoint protection system is based on an artificial neural network that detects deviations from typical user behavior, which could mean it’s being used by an unauthorized person — say, someone who had stolen the phone — and shuts down the device before harm can be done.
  • Drones for inspection, surveillance, and security. Most adjacent to its aerospace heritage, the company has two drones — one fixed-wing (called Tiburon), one tethered (similar to CyPhy Works, named OSPREI). The company claims that its “Tiburon Jr.” can carry payloads up to about 10 kg, with an 80-knot cruise speed (and “even faster dash”) and a 15- to 40-hour loiter endurance; it has a modular architecture that allows for 15-minute assembly or disassembly.
  • Precision drilling equipment for horizontal wells. Building on its sensing and navigation expertise, Intuitive has used two conventional downhole magnetic ranging assemblies in test wells with a leading oilfield services provider. Gittleman said that with better software on existing hardware and sensor data, Intuitive can look five meters to eight meters ahead of the drill bit in passive magnetic well ranging, and 15 meters in active ranging. He claimed the technology was able to deliver a 90% improvement in the time it takes to start acquiring data, and can ultimately “cut several days from the time it takes to drill a well.” Gittleman said that due to the current low oil price, interest in the technology has cooled, and the company is only expending minimal effort to take it forward until an industry partner appears.
  • Medical devices for IV insertion, child safety and suicide prevention. Intuitive has a prototype of an automated intravenous needle insertion device, capable of finding veins, moving to the proper point above the skin and inserting the needle to the appropriate depth. It has also developed a “clip-on” safety device meant to be attached to a child’s car seat, which connects with an app that alerts the parent if they have left their child inside the car. A third device monitors the gestures and other user-defined behaviors of a patient in a hospital room (or prisoner in a jail cell), looking for signs that foretell potentially violent or suicidal actions. The latter two applications are particularly interesting as they align with the growing monitoring technologies segment of digital health and wellness. Gittleman said that these technologies are also non-core, and taking them to the next step will require a yet-to-be-identified industry partner.

Gittleman said that of 20 inventions the company has started to develop, about half are currently active projects. Intuitive hopes to spin off both the back-burnered efforts and the ones still going, but needs partners to do so (as mentioned above, it needs a new oil and gas partner willing to do additional research in test wells, since the original one fell to belt-tightening in today’s low-price oil environment). In the meantime, the company can sustain itself on revenue from engineering services, like it is doing with Lockheed Martin on the Orion space program, Halliburton, and Axiom on a private commercial space station module.

The company’s biggest asset is its breadth of applications, in our view, but this is also its biggest challenge: because its fundamental science has so many potential areas of application, it has not yet chosen a focus on the business side (which is impossible to scale like the science and engineering work). While such hopes for creating a “platform technology” leading to limitless products are common among scientist-led startups, success is extremely rare. Navigational algorithms can credibly be used in positioning spacecraft, drones, drills and medical devices, but a team of fewer than 50 people can’t attend all the industry events, client meetings, networking cocktail events and pitch meetings required to build the trust and commitment that will lead to shared goals and signed deals, and turn prototypes into products. The company’s thinly spread business development efforts are thus pursuing a mixed-model business strategy: Intuitive wants to be paid for contract research; but also, according to Gittleman, “develops, owns and in the future will operate its own, internally funded” technologies (for example, using the drones to develop a data services business). This would require even more staffing, skills and passion, since entrepreneurial businesses can’t be a sideshow, and Intuitive has only one CEO.

Gittleman did emphasize that the company’s focus is on commercializing the cybersecurity technologies first, and believes that they are closest to commercialization. Still, any investor putting venture capital into the technology would pressure the company to drop all other efforts (including independent contract research), which it seems unlikely that Intuitive would be willing to do.

Clients attracted to Intuitive’s inventions should attempt to negotiate a licensing deal, since the company’s attentions are spread across so many projects that getting additional development support could prove challenging. Particular attention during the due diligence phase should be paid to the uniqueness of claims and patent priority dates, as other companies across some of the target industries are developing similar solutions — for example, Vasculogic and Veebot are both developing automated venipuncture systems based on navigational algorithms paired with application-specific robotics. Given the widespread reach of the core technology and the relative lack of specific industry expertise within the company, there is a reasonable chance for unintentional IP infringement, which can potentially spell trouble for licensees.

Alternatively, those interested should contractually stipulate resources and milestones for joint development agreements where Intuitive’s apparently capable engineering staff will actively participate. For its own part, Intuitive may shift its strategy, aligning with an incubator like the Houston Technology Center, or taking a page from the few organizations like SRI International (full disclosure: a Lux Research partner), UCSF’s QB3 and Otherlab that execute the research-to-spinout strategy reasonably well.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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