Greenville, Indiana company Techshot, Inc. has been around since 1988. A good many people drive past it every day without really knowing what the company does. But don’t let the nondescript building fool you. Techshot designs and manufactures machines that astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) use to run experiments. In fact, the Techshot Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP) and the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) comprise the first-ever system capable of manufacturing human tissue in the microgravity condition of space.
Louisville Future spoke with Rich Boling, Techshot’s vice president, about the company’s origins and what’s on their agenda now.
The company was founded in 1988 but has grown immensely since 2012. What happened?
Boling: Big companies like Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop Grumman have always been a part of NASA’s picture because they were contracted to build rockets and space stations. Before 2012, NASA would tell us what they needed. We would turn it over to them, get paid, and then we were done. Starting in 2012, the tide turned a bit toward allowing opportunities for small and commercial businesses in the ISS U.S. National Laboratory.
In 2011, NASA hired a company called the Center for the Advancement of Science and Space to manage the ISS U.S. National Lab. That opened it up for the space station to be used by other parts of the federal government and for private commercial companies and supporting organizations.
So Techshot took advantage of that sea change?
Boling: Yes. We are one of only nine or 10 companies that build and commercially operate their own research manufacturing devices onboard the station. We have four devices up there now. The 3D BioPrinter is one of those devices.
The printer seems to garner the most attention for us right now. It represents the majority of what we do. The device costs about $7 million to build. We use it toward helping to manufacture human organs and tissues in space. We also open it up for use by other organizations, researchers and commercial companies who may have their own goals and purposes for using a 3D printer in space. We provide the ‘picks and shovels’ for somebody else, as there’s no reason for them to build a $7 million piece of equipment for just one experiment.
We furnish the paperwork and all of the equipment. Then we line everything up and launch it. Our customers never even have to talk to NASA. We have a mini mission control here at our office. We talk directly to the astronauts in real time, and we can watch through video what the astronauts and crew members are doing with our equipment for our customers.
Give us an example of one of your customers.
Boling: We’ve worked with Merck. Although they have an established process in their lab, they don’t know how to translate that to microgravity, like freezing a sample. There’s no equivalent of a mass spectrometer or high-liquid chromatography — things that you might see in any pharma company’s lab.
What does the customer experience involve?
Boling: First we talk about what the process is going to cost, because not many people have an idea. An experiment in space with a cassette that’s about the size of a lunch box lasts about three weeks and costs $300,000. Then I assemble a team of scientists and engineers, and we start talking about what piece of equipment in our catalog will fit what they want to do. We get more granular as we talk. The process typically takes between 18 months and two years.
Are you helping develop tech that will actually be used in space?
Boling: We’re helping to improve processes on Earth. There’s a lot of gene expression studies being done. For example, you might carry a gene for breast cancer. Maybe with microgravity, we can find a way of turning off that gene.
A lot of drug research is being done. With earth’s gravity, materials will go up when warm and settle to the bottom when they cool. Sometimes you want that. However, in drug development, you don’t want that. It affects the mixture. You want an even mix. Sedimentation and convection don’t happen in space.
Do you have employees on the space station?
Boling: No employees, per se. The astronauts are the lab techs, and they do the work for us. I have personally flown on an airplane sometimes called the “Vomit Comet,” which goes up and gets about 30 seconds of microgravity. We did some research on one of our 3D printing devices, and they let the “old guy” go on that. We did it for like three hours, and I was like an out-of-control Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float. I didn’t throw up, but I really wanted to.