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How an STTR to Develop AI for Mars has Improved our Life on Earth

By Norman Eng, Public Affairs Specialist


Mars Rover

Neurala is on a mission to make artificial intelligence more applicable and useful in the real world.  Its core technology allows you to build a brain, a custom neural network modeled after the human brain that can interact with its environment and imitate human learning.

The idea for Neurala came about in a coffee shop in 2006; cofounders Max Versace, Anatoly Gorshechnikov and Heather Ames were working together on their PhDs at the Boston University Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems. The team came to the realization that major developments in the latest graphics processors for gaming, also had vast potential for artificial intelligence.

What if each pixel was treated like a neuron of a brain? This notion was tested and granted a patent, enabling Neurala’s founders to build practical applications for the technology.

In 2009, the team had established a company and began subcontracting with Hewlett Packard on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project aimed at developing low-power computers and software capable of emulating human neural systems.


NASA Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR)

In 2010, a NASA Langley Research Center engineer found out about the team’s work after reading Versace’s DARPA research article in IEEE Spectrum, a magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Max VersaceThe NASA engineer immediately saw potential for improving the efficiency of a mission to Mars with Neurala’s brain-inspired solution. It was the tech’s ability to address the problem of processing power limitations by collocating computational capability with memory that piqued his interest.

Without solicitation, the engineer reached out to Neurala and he pitched the team to work with NASA on a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contract.

Put your heart into doing what you’re passionate about and at a certain point it will pay off.  – CEO Max Versace.


In 2011, Neurala was awarded $125K to deliver STTR Phase I research. One of the unique requirements of the STTR program is that small businesses formally collaborate with a research institution in Phase I and II.

Neurala completed the work in collaboration with Boston University’s Neuromorphics Lab. The first phase focused on finding out how a rover on Mars could navigate by itself – learning unsupervised, in unfamiliar environments.

In 2013, the company received a STTR Phase 2 award in the amount of $700K to further develop its fundamental technology for commercialization. Funding is based on the results achieved in Phase I, the scientific and technical merit and commercial potential of the proposed Phase II project.

Later that year, Neurala emerged from stealth after completing the Techstars startup accelerator program, which helped the company monetize its research and prepare for commercialization and further investment.

Today, Neurala’s technology is used in over 53 million devices worldwide – powering robots, drones, smart devices, and industrial machines. The goal of its flagship product – Brain Builder - is to help enable any enterprise to leverage artificial intelligence technology, build custom vision AI models and deploy them in real-world applications, without requiring any knowledge of AI.


(Disclaimer: The SBA does not endorse the organizations sponsoring linked websites, and does not endorse the views they express or the products/services they offer.)


STTR Mission and Program Goals

The mission of the STTR program is to support scientific excellence and technological innovation through the investment of Federal research funds in critical American priorities to build a strong national economy.

The programs’ goals are to:

  • Stimulate technological innovation.
  • Foster technology transfer through cooperative R&D between small businesses and research institutions.
  • Increase private sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal R&D.

Small Business Technology Transfer Resources

1. Massachusetts Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC)

Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) business advisors are dedicated to providing assistance in bidding, managing and performing on government contracts. Much of the counseling is performed at the client's firm location, making the technical support delivery available in a timely and cost effective manner.
Procurement Technical Assistance Center, 23 Tillson Farm Rd, Amherst, MA 01003
Daniel Lilly, SBIR Counselor
508-673-9783 x100


2. EforAll (SBA Growth Accelerator)

Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) is accelerating economic and social impact through entrepreneurship in mid-sized cities.
175 Cabot Street Suite 100, Lowell, MA

3. VentureWell (SBA Growth Accelerator)

VentureWell is on a mission to cultivate a pipeline of inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs driven to solve the world’s biggest challenges and to create lasting impact.
100 Venture Way, Hadley, MA 01035

4. Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network

The Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (MSBDC) Network provides one-to-one free comprehensive and confidential services focusing on, business growth and strategies, financing and loan assistance as well as strategic, marketing and operational analysis. In addition, low cost educational training programs are offered across the state targeted to the needs of small business. Services are delivered through a statewide network of skilled professionals supported by a vast network of federal, state, educational and private sector partners.
Tillson House, University of Massachusetts, 23 Tillson Farm Road, Amherst, MA 01003

5. Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership

MassMEP is a collaborative center comprised of government, business, and academic partners dedicated to helping Massachusetts manufacturers meet the challenges of competing in an ever-changing economy. MassMEP provides Massachusetts manufacturers with the resources they need to prepare for success in today’s advanced manufacturing environment.
100 Grove Street, Worcester, MA 01756

6. MassVentures: SBIR START program

START (The SBIR Targeted Technologies Program) is a program funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to assist Massachusetts-based companies, which have received SBIR/STTR Phase II funding, in turning their technologies into commercialized, promising technologies. In addition to financial commercialization assistance, START provides coaching, business planning and introductions to potential investors.
308 Congress Street, 5th Floor, Boston, MA 02210

7. Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC): Small Business Matching Grant Program

The primary objective of the Small Business Matching Grant Program (SBMG) is to provide grants to commercialization-ready life sciences and technology companies that have received at least the equivalent of a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Defense (DOD), etc.
1000 Winter Street Suite 100, Waltham, MA 02451

8. Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC): Catalyst Program Awards
The Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC) and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) jointly administer the Catalyst Program Awards. The program’s intent is to stimulate the commercialization of clean energy technologies developed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Awarded funds (grants of up to $40,000) are used to demonstrate the feasibility of technologies in specific industry applications in order to obtain increased industry and investor interest.
225 Franklin Street 12th Floor, Boston, MA 02110
Michele Bernier, Commercialization Program Manager

9. The Capital Network – The Fellowship for Female Founders (SBA Growth Accelerator)

The Capital Network is a non-profit (501c3) organization that provides practical, hands-on education and personalized mentoring to help early stage entrepreneurs master the entire funding process and successfully raise seed capital & beyond.
281 Summer Street, Fl. 2, Boston, MA 02210
Marie Meslin, Executive Director




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