History has proven that getting to the moon is no easy feat. Once there, it’s imperative that equipment remains viable against the rigors of the lunar landscape. Every particle, every speck of lunar “dirt” is a battlefield for scientific equipment. With little atmosphere and no wind or water to soften them, the razor-sharp lunar particles wage war on the progress of lunar research. If you have ever dreamed of leaving this planet, now’s your chance to be part of something extraterrestrial with Off Planet Research (OPR). It’s just one project that Thurston County investors are investing in, locally.

Thurston EDC Off Planet Research Company Photo
From left to right, Melissa Roth, Lauren Roux, and Vince Roux of Off Planet Research. Photo courtesy: Off Planet Research

How scientific equipment will respond throughout the mission is on the forefront of every researcher’s mind. Without equipment, there is no data, and without data – well, you know the rest.

Fortunately, proper equipment testing is no longer left to just a roll of the dice. Off Planet Research is located terrestrially, in Lacey. “OPR simulates extraterrestrial environments for testing space-based technology,” explains Melissa Roth, lead researcher and co-founder.  “OPR has developed lunar regolith, [artificial Moon soil] and ice simulants for testing lunar technology or conducting research.”

The brilliance of the work that OPR is doing is impressive and unparallelled, but brilliance alone does not fuel a mission. Money does though. This past March, Leila Zheng was one of a group of individual investors who, through The Thurston Investment Network, (ThINk) invested in the local Lacey business. Pat Rants, of the Rants Group, also believes in the work being done and invested too. “Off Planet Research interested me because it is a new and unique product that I think can be of real use in moon research,” he shares. “I don’t pretend to understand all of the technology but I can see the uses.”

Both Zheng & Rants are members of the Thurston Investment Network (ThINk), a membership-based network of local investors. A matchmaking service, so to speak, akin to the popular TV show, “Shark Tank,” only here at home in Thurston County.

Thurston EDC Off Planet Research at LEAG 2017
Vince and Melissa are pictured here with Jonette Stecklein of NASA Johnson Space Center and Apollo 17 astronaut, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt at the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group Conference in 2017. Photo courtesy: Off Planet Research

ThINk is administered through the Thurston Economic Development Council.  “The network helps connect local capital to local businesses, assisting with their start up or expansion,” shares Aslan Meade, Thurston EDC’s director of strategic alliances. “Not every business seeking capital is a match for traditional commercial lending, making for a well-established gap in access to capital. The Thurston Investment Network helps to fill this gap.”

ThINk is a place where small businesses that are seeking funding can connect with community members who are looking to add local components to their investment portfolios. Like Leila Zheng. To her, aligning investments with her values is foremost. It’s more than just shopping fair trade, buying produce locally, aiming for zero waste. “In our capitalist economy, money gives us the ability to weigh in on if a business succeeds or not,” Zheng says.

“Off Planet Research’s pitch immediately resonated with me as I saw a growing need for their business,” says Zheng. “As a fellow engineer, I could empathize with the desire to create technology to benefit humanity and push boundaries of knowledge. My investment has been rewarding on multiple dimensions. Besides a financial return. I’ve also been excited to see a local company through its growth. I’ve learned about a different industry, and got to meet the brilliant minds behind the scenes and support their passion. The special aspect of localvesting is you directly get to see the impact of your investment.”

Part of the success of Off Planet Research is their hyper-focus on quality and accuracy. “Quality control is very important for simulant,” Roth explains, “as the material can be used to calibrate instruments and test the survivability of technology. In the last year, OPR developed a lunar ice simulant based on the LCROSS mission in 2009.”

Thurston EDC Off Planet Research Highland Simulant
A microscope’s view of OPR’s Highland simulant. This type of Moon regolith (think dust, dirt, powder) makes up the lighter portions of the Moon seen from Earth. The jagged, abrasive edges of the particles cause wear to lunar technology. Photo courtesy: Off Planet Research

This simulant is important because it allows researchers to test the viability of using the moon as a refueling station and making rocket fuel there on-site. That ability is a key component for deeper space travel. “OPR’s ice simulant has already been used for preliminary testing of NASA’s NIRVSS instrument, which has been selected to fly on an upcoming mission,” Roth shares.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the work Off Planet Research is doing is massive. These ingenious minds creating such ground-breaking work right in our-own-backyard is a major boon to our community.

Gary Andrews saw that too. Through his participation in ThINk, he was also one of the investors who boosted Off Planet Research recently. “In the past, space travel was pretty much dependent upon funding from the government for NASA,” he says. “Now, with names like Bezos, Branson and Musk, progress in the area will jump exponentially. With appropriate financing along the way and some luck, Off Planet Research is positioned to take advantage of that progress.”

Andrews has confidence in Off Planet Research and he also truly believes in investing locally. “I have been involved in several previous efforts to create local funding opportunities for local businesses that for various reasons, were unsustainable,” Andrews shares. After he heard about ThINk, he was reinvigorated to participate in the effort. “I believe in buying local, but I am even more supportive of investing locally. Every successful small business creates employment opportunities, increases tax base and community involvement. When added to working with bright entrepreneurs and the possibility of making a little money, this is an outstanding community effort led by the Thurston EDC,” he adds.

Thurston EDC Off Planet Research Mar Simulant
A penny impression in OPR’s Mare simulant. This type of regolith is found on the Moon’s large, dark, basaltic plains. The picture illustrates that lunar simulants should be very cohesive. Photo courtesy: Off Planet Research

And there will be many uses indeed. With this new investment in their work, OPR is now able to increase the production rates of their simulant and expand their network. “This investment allows us to have quicker turnaround times and take on larger orders,” says Roth.

She also found other things of value through Off Planet Research’s recent match through ThINk. “Given the varied backgrounds of our investors, we now have additional sources of advice to turn to,” she shares. “The EDC was very helpful in preparing us for the ThINk pitch through practice presentations and offering suggestions.”

Whether you’re just starting a business, growing one, or continuing your education, the Thurston Economic Development Council & Center for Business Innovation is an amazingly comprehensive resource for our commerce community.

Savvy business-people know that personalization in business is trending, and consumers nowadays want a more personable and authentic connection to products and companies. So, why should securing funding for businesses be any different?

The ThINk model of local investing has really taken off over the last year here in Thurston County. Over 60 investors have joined the network to date, with about 40 actively engaged and participating. ThINk members have now invested in 5 local businesses for a total of just over $300K.

If you’d like to participate in ThINk or learn more about the local investment network, contact Alsan Meade at the Thurston EDC at ameade@thurstonedc.com or by calling 360-464-6054.

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