NASA Partners with Businesses to Support US Industry

On May 21, 2014, over 500 business representatives came together on Bryant University’s campus for the 29th annual World Trade Day. This year’s event was a huge success, offering business people a day of learning, inspiration, and networking with top professionals from a wide variety of industries with the goal of helping to identify and create partnerships that promote international business. RISBJ was excited to be given the chance to sit down with representatives from Bryant University and the luncheon keynote speaker, Dr. Jakob van Zyl.

Dr. Jakob van Zyl is the associate director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Since he started at JPL in 1986, Dr. van Zyl has witnessed many important moments in the history of space exploration, including the launching of the rovers Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity.

The JPL was asked to give the keynote presentation at World Trade Day, themed “Back to the USA: Partnering for Global Success”, because the JPL offers exciting opportunities for small businesses to partner with them.  Dr. van Zyl’s presentations at the luncheon explored opportunities for local businesses, as well as provided advice on how to be successful in a globally competitive market.

One of the most crucial aspects of any business is teamwork, and that seems to be especially true for JPL. Dr. van Zyl said JPL partners with many small businesses in the United States not only to complete important NASA projects, but also to help improve US industry. “People often have a misconception that we build everything ourselves, but a large portion of our projects are built by people around the US,” said Dr. van Zyl. “Our job is to be a production house and pass ideas into US industries. We have to work very closely with small companies to solve fundamental issues.”

According to Dr. van Zyl, much of what’s developed with their business partners is the first of its kind. Even though the products are primarily designed for space exploration and environmental research, many of them become popular products in consumer markets. Some products JPL has helped develop include cell phone cameras, fire hotspot detection equipment, infrared thermometers, cancer detection equipment, and robotic surgery devices.

Currently, JPL is working on developing a new rover that is planned to launch in 2020 to further investigate the idea that there was life on Mars at some point. The research lab is also studying other planets to see if they could support human life. In fact, Dr. van Zyl revealed during his keynote speech that since 2009, they’ve been able to find nearly 4,000 candidates for other planets and almost 1,000 of them are confirmed planets. They’ve even found a planet called Kepler-186f that’s the same size as the earth and exists in a star’s “habitable zone,” a range of space away from a star where liquid water can still form.

So, how have JPL and Dr. van Zyl witnessed so much success over the years? In the end, Dr. van Zyl insists it’s all about never giving up—a principle that applies just as well to Rhode Island businesses. “Quite often we run into problems that seem insurmountable,” said Dr. van Zyl. “We have to reinvent ourselves and find new solutions for problems we thought we solved. Once we work as a team and bring the smart minds of NASA researchers and the innovative minds of businesspeople together, we are successful.”

Take Dr. van Zyl’s advice—combine teamwork and perseverance, and you’ll have the perfect mixture for success!

World Trade Day is sponsored by the Chafee Center for International Business at Bryant University and provides valuable resources and information for local businesses to help grow RI’s international business. In addition to Dr. van Zyl’s luncheon presentation, the day included a choice from fifteen breakout sessions presented by industry professionals on high level topics relevant to today’s international business environment as well as a morning keynote speaker that addressed U.S. international trade policy issues.  Attendees not only benefited from hearing from business experts, they also were inspired by stories from local companies and from Dr. van Zyl.


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