Milwaukee-based Rice Technology among top innovations in NASA iTech competition

David Rice, president of Milwaukee-based Rice Technology LLC, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee scientist Marcia Silva are among 10 finalists in a NASA program aimed at finding ideas to solve critical problems on Earth and in future space exploration.

The NASA iTech initiative, now in its third cycle, seeks entries from innovators in the areas of augmented reality advancement, medical breakthrough and “X-factor innovation” — an entry that doesn’t fit a specific focus area but has potential to fill a critical need for NASA.

Rice Technology has developed a sensor that is able to detect multiple contaminants in water, including dissolved and suspended solids, phosphorus, bacteria and viruses. It’s led by Rice and Silva, facility manager of the UWM Water Technology Accelerator. The team submitted a patent application in August 2017 and has had multiple UWM engineering students working on the project since 2014.

“To measure contaminants in water, there are many different ways of doing it, but each instrument is designed to measure one particular contaminant — a meter that measures suspended solids, one that measures the pH and so on and so forth,” Rice said. “But what is sorely missing is a device that can measure how much bacteria there is in water and how many viruses there are in water on a real-time basis. You can do this but it takes a day or more and it involves a lot of laboratory work.”

Their device simplifies the process, Rice said.

“It uses no chemicals and it uses a tiny amount of electricity, little electromagnetic fields, that can measure all those contaminants simultaneously, within seconds,” he said. “It’s very small, it’s very lightweight, it takes very little power and it’s inexpensive.”

Rice, an electronic engineer, said the product has taken about three years to create. He has worked with Marcia Silva, researcher and facility manager of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Water Technology Accelerator. Rice previously participated in the Global Water Center’s startup accelerator program with his former venture, Noah Technologies, which produced a leak detection sensor for use in homes or businesses.

Rice Technology’s pitch to NASA is that the agency could use his new device in its water recycling system on the International Space Station to detect any non-conformities in the filtration process.

“What I am suggesting to them is they put one of my sensors at the end of every single stage before it goes into the next stage,” he said. “If something goes wrong, the reading will rise and you know something is going wrong with your filtration system. And not only that, you also know which stage has failed so they can now take steps to fix it. And stop the process before any damage occurs.”

Aside from space exploration, the new device could be used in various industries, including hospitals, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, Rice said.

Rice said the exposure through NASA iTech will allow the company to pursue venture capital to take the product further.

The top 10 NASA iTech finalists will present their innovations on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the end of the NASA iTech Forum in Melville, New York. Representatives from NASA, other federal agencies, industry and the investment community will be on hand during the presentations. Teams representing the top three entries­ selected at the end of the forum will receive recognition during a non-monetary awards ceremony on Feb. 1.

Kira Blackwell, program executive for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said the top 18 companies that have previously participated in NASA iTech have reported raising more than $50 million in private investments over the last 12 months.

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