This guest contribution is part of our ISS20 series commemorating 20 years of continuous human presence on the ISS through a collection of visionary contributions on the future of space.
Olivia Gamez Holzhaus holds a B.S. in microbiology and an M.S. in management of technology, a business degree focused on developing science and hi-tech industries. Following college and with more than 10 years in the applied science industry, she founded Rhodium Scientific, LLC in 2014, where she focuses on advancing global biotech and defense initiatives on Earth and in space.
My company Rhodium Scientific (Rhodium) has established a strong reputation within the terrestrial biotech sector for providing niche science-based services to optimize laboratory analytical protocols, equipment, and facility design workflows. As with most companies and individuals involved in space-based research, I did not initially position Rhodium to support a laboratory orbiting the Earth. Over the past few years, as my knowledge of microgravity and its unique effects upon biological systems grew, I began to expand Rhodium’s capabilities beyond Earth’s constraints.
Understanding this extreme environment to be a realm primed for unlimited and useful discovery, I began merging biotech’s standard operating procedures with our new space capabilities and called it the “Quality, Industry Compatible (QuIC) Space Process.” The QuIC Space Process completes a mission at the speed of business and combines quality assurances that biotech clientele recognize with NASA’s mission integration and operation procedures. Through processes like this, I envision the next 20 years of applied biological testing in microgravity becoming a sought-after, industry-feasible, and scientifically credible endeavor.
Now that Rhodium has launched multiple science missions to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020, including three that used the QuIC Space Process (Phage Evolution, Rhodium Space Microbiome, and Rhodium Inflight Biomanufacturing), I have had a chance to examine the state of the space industry and where it is tracking from a biotechnology perspective. In many circles, I hear the phrase “research and development (R&D)” as a current challenge and future goal towards the creation of a sustainable low Earth orbit (LEO) economy.
While both “research” and “development” are sometimes viewed independently, I feel the most important word is often the most overlooked. The key word is “and.” Supporting missions that take advantage of the “and” have a common thread—attention to scientific detail, business know-how, and a clear vision of postflight analytical activities. Through directed efforts to build internal capabilities in support of the biotechnology sector, I see Rhodium and many of our colleagues in the space industry uniquely primed to support the dual modality of research and development over the next 20 years.
Achieving the “and” within a space-based biotech sector takes great effort to properly initiate missions and enable them for success. We do this by (1) fully understanding and communicating “why” the proposed R&D efforts should be conducted in space and (2) effectively defining “how” terrestrial lab protocols can be translated into flight-feasible hardware and operational plans. The combined capability to scientifically develop a project while maintaining downstream focus on the resulting product is what I call the “business of science.” Being able to understand the business of science and truly connecting research “and” development will allow for the capitalization of transformative sciences improved in space.
As the biotech market grows, there are key changes happening that I believe will direct the next 20 years of ISS R&D. I have noticed an upward trend in the number of savvy entrepreneurs entering the space biotech market who also understand the business of science. This trend has produced growth in supporting sectors of finance, policy, and law—all setting advantageous precedents for the LEO economy.
Additionally, recent evolutionary advances in molecular techniques, miniaturized equipment, and improved timelines between discovery and product placement have been applied to space research. I see endless potential for transitioning space-based discoveries into terrestrial production models through breakthroughs in bioengineered and synthetic biological systems. Bioengineered and synthetic biology systems avoid critical pitfalls that limit scalability due to finite orbital resources and prohibitive supply chains associated with other R&D markets. Increased utilization of bioengineered and synthetic biology systems will truly allow for the biotech market to capitalize on transformative solutions in space now and into the next 20 years.
I anticipate many entrepreneurs, companies, agencies, and universities will experience the same draw to conduct business in a space-based economy as I have over the next 20 years. When they arrive, I envision Rhodium and the commercial space industry welcoming them in as colleagues, clients, and collaborators who seek to build upon the past 20 years of ISS operations. Thus, Rhodium Scientific looks forward to teaming with these forward-thinking groups destined to venture past low Earth orbit to engage in the next phases of space-based research and development.