University of Southern California

Entrepreneurs and Engineers Look to the Final Frontier
Fifty years to the day after Sputnik launched the Space Race, entrepreneurs, engineers, academics, astronauts and not a few dreamers gathered in a Bel Air...
October 15, 2007 • by David Bloom

Fifty years to the day after Sputnik launched the Space Race, an eclectic group of entrepreneurs, engineers, academics, astronauts and not a few dreamers gathered in a Bel Air hotel to hear about the next Space Race, where commercial companies bring thousands of visitors to the edge of the void, and beyond, and make money doing it.

The group was gathered to celebrate another launch, that of, an organization dedicated to the commercial space-travel business. The earth's atmosphere dissipates 62 miles above sea level, making space a lot closer to downtown Los Angeles than is, say, Bakersfield. And to the event's attendees, commercial space travel is even closer to a viable reality.

"For people who want to be in on the ground floor, this is the place to be," said Kathleen Allen, a professor of clinical at USC Marshall School of Business, and a close observer of the industry. "I think the opportunities are there. You don't have to be an engineer to get involved in this industry."

The companies need help with brand building and marketing, to encourage would-be customers to climb aboard, Allen said. The companies also need smart business people who know how to start, build and run successful organizations.

"There's a lot of room for entrepreneurial thinking," Allen said. "To get the kind of really breakthrough innovation, they need the entrepreneurship of these private companies."

Numerous start-up companies, some financed by billionaires such as's Jeff Bezos and Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson or huge conglomerates such as Boeing, have proliferated. Many are based in northern Los Angeles County, near Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave.

The California Space Authority estimates that the state is home to nearly a third of all the work being done nationwide on commercial space travel, and nearly 20 percent of the world's total, said Deputy Director Janice Belluci Dunn.

That geographic good fortune, coupled with the region's strong aerospace industry and USC's highly rated programs in business, engineering and medicine have positioned the university to be a major player in a burgeoning industry, Allen said.

The potential technology spin-offs - like the Teflon, Tang and MRIs of the first Space Race - are many, but also may involve such substantial businesses as space-based hotels to moon mining of the "heavy" isotope of helium for energy creation, said Dunn.

USC Marshall's Center for Technology Commercialization, which Allen directs, co-sponsored the event. It also featured technology demonstrations from two programs in USC's Viterbi School of Engineering's> Information Sciences Institute.

The Aerospace Technology and Systems Center showed off its Lunar Lander Risk Reduction Platform, a student-built, jet-powered flying vehicle. Companies can use the platform to test their technologies for deployment on the moon or a planet without also having to immediately develop a rocket-powered landing vehicle, said center Director David Barnhart.

The Polymorphic Robotics Lab also showed off its shape-changing robots, which can inch along like a caterpillar, "breast stroke" across flat services, crawl on a wire or roll in a large hoop.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.