A hub of innovation

NASA Research Park blends government, venture capital, education and startups

By something of a federal real-estate accident, a host of cutting-edge cleantech development is taking place on the grounds of the old Moffett Field Naval Air Station -- repurposed in the last decade as the NASA Research Park after the U.S. Navy closed its operation and handed the property over to the space agency.

Unknown to most local residents, the 2,000 acres surrounding the iconic Hangar One host 50 companies, 14 universities, a future Google campus, the California Air National Guard and 2 million square feet of planned rental housing.

It is a curious blend of government resources, venture capital, educational institutions and private startups.

The vision -- so far only partly realized -- is "a world-class research park with graduate students, faculty and young Google workers who rent the housing and walk to work," said NASA Research Park Director Michael Marlaire.

To date, the 42-acre future Google site is under long-term lease but not yet built.

But the personal aircraft of Brin and Page and Google CEO Eric Schmidt -- as well as a Google-affiliated research aircraft -- are based at the airfield, Marlaire said.

Also based there is Airship Enterprises, home to the familiar white Zeppelin often seen floating over the Bay Area.

By paying anywhere from $199 to $950 per person, members of the public can float above it all as well, on tours ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Another airship company is due to move in soon with the intention of manufacturing airships in one of the hangars.

"We're in it for the long term," Marlaire said of NASA's commitment to developing the research park.

"Our goal is to select partners in R&D and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education pursuits," he said, adding that tenants pay market rents and that the planned housing development is on hold because of the economy.

Graduate students from many institutions flow in and out of the research park. Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University already has awarded 400 masters' degrees at its West Coast site, he said.

Many corporate startup tenants enjoy a mix of venture backing and government incentives.

Tesla tests its vehicles on the tarmac, Marlaire said.

Another tenant company, Unimodal, is trying to develop "personal rapid transit" that would run on magnetic levitation tracks. Users would sit in small "pods" resembling something out of The Jetsons, and enter their destination into a computer.

"There would be hundreds of pods going all over the place. It would be like the Internet, for people," he said.

Another tenant, Magenn Power, is developing high-altitude wind power, in which a tethered wind turbine sends power back to the ground.

An early tenant, K.R. Sridhar of Bloom Energy, began developing his high-efficiency fuel-cell "Bloom Boxes" while working as a scientist in NASA's Mars Program.

When the program was cancelled, Sridhar obtained venture funding (the high-profile firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers describes Bloom as "KPCB's first greentech investment") and landed at NASA Research Park.

He has since expanded to Sunnyvale, where he employs several hundred people producing Bloom Boxes.

"We have the ability to use these old facilities and hangars as the best cutting-edge location for people who are going to change the world," Marlaire said.

"People in the business of startups and new companies fully understand what's over here."

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