'One big step' for PH innovators: How rocket launch inspires NASA challenge winners

Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 10 2019 06:40 PM

Representing PH: Team iNON before presenting their app to NASA Courtesy: Team iNON

While they've seen a few on video, the experience was worlds away watching in person. 

They called it shocking, indescribable, overwhelming, and for one, a dream come true.

For the first Filipino winners of the space apps challenge of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), witnessing a rocket launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was another milestone in their journey that began at a Manila hackathon in October 2018. 

Team iNON, developers of the "ISDApp" community app, joined 5 other challenge winners who were invited to the U.S. to view up-close the launch of SpaceX's 18th resupply mission to the International Space Station last month.

Their late July visit also coincided with the 50th anniversary of humanity's first walk on the moon via NASA's Apollo 11 mission.

But beyond having a front-row seat to a mission, they were also there to present their app.

iNON members Migs De Guzman, JR Del Rosario, Jeddah Legaspi, Herlan Leuterio, Revbrain Martin, and Jc Torreda described their trip as being part of history.

"Since we were the first Filipinos to go there, we feel it's one big step for us young innovators here in the Philippines," Martin said in a group interview with ABS-CBN News.

A milestone, considering half of the team members have minimal tech or coding backgrounds.

'NOT EXACTLY CUTTING-EDGE'

Team iNON at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo courtesy of Team iNON 

Only Torreda, De Guzman, and two other previous teammates who helped hatch the initial ISDApp idea are in information and technology. 

Torreda, a former employee of a local telecoms firm, is now a manager for emerging technologies at Cebu Pacific Air. De Guzman is an enterprise architect for power distributor Meralco.

Meanwhile, Legaspi and Martin are copywriters at ABS-CBN's creative communications management division.

Leuterio and Del Rosario also work in communications careers: Leuterio in government and Del Rosario with post-production company Ambient Light Post as a 3D motion graphics artist.

But the team said it was not ISDApp's technical sophistication that impressed the judges at NASA. 

Other winners tapped augmented reality and virtual reality experiences in their entries.

"What we did was not exactly cutting-edge. We’re just using existing types of technology," Torreda said.

"You don't need to develop anything grand. What's more important is what help can it give. And we were glad they appreciated it even if we created something simple."

ISDApp at centerstage: Team iNON presenting the idea at the space apps challenge in October 2018 (above) and at NASA in July 2019. Top photo by Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News; below photo courtesy of Team iNON/Composite

Indeed, when it announced ISDApp had won the space apps' "galactic impact" category, NASA called it the "solution with the most potential to improve life on Earth or in the universe."

The story and storytelling behind the app also helped-- which was where the team members' communication background came in.

ISDApp's rationale was safety. It would use existing data to prevent fishermen from getting lost--or worse, dying-- at sea. They would get that information on their analog phones cascaded by a local authority's smartphone.

That on-ground impact was a reason ISDApp became a favorite among the judges and generated interest even from other winners, said Martin.

"The team from Bangladesh was already asking us if ISDApp was already available. They felt that since our countries had similar situations, they might be able to use it too," he said.

UNEXPECTED FILIPINO HOSPITALITY

Team iNON with NASA engineer Josephine Santiago-Bond Courtesy: Team iNON

Miles away from home, Team iNON still found a Filipino touch in their NASA trip. Or rather, it found them.

A woman who they noticed had Filipino features came to watch their presentation at the Kennedy Space Center and introduced herself to them after.

She was Josephine Santiago-Bond, an engineer who now heads its Advanced Engineering Development Branch, and one of the few Filipinos working at the space agency.

"She still had the Filipino hospitality," said Herlan Leuterio.

"She would drive us to the site and join us for dinner. She was so nice to us, she even gave us stickers. I had to ask for her autograph!" 

Santiago-Bond's story of making it in NASA from the bottom also resonated with the team.

"It showed us things do happen for a reason. For us, if we had not known each other or connected a few years ago, Team iNON would not have been formed. We would not have joined the challenge and have that chance to represent our country," said Martin.

LITTLE JOURNEY, BIG IMPACT

JC Torreda demonstrates ISDApp after they were selected as a Philippine nominee to the NASA Space Apps challenge in October 2018. Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

Team iNON has targeted ISDApp for release at the end of 2019.

They have already partnered with a technology business incubator. In the works too are a website to help its search for investors and volunteers.

Still, the app has to be pilot tested in Philippine fishing communities before the launch to measure how adaptable it is and pinpoint what features need to be enhanced.

For the team, ISDApp's historic trip to NASA was not the climax of its story, but just the beginning.

They hope their little journey so far would encourage more support for technology development locally.

The Philippines is also making its own strides to the stars, having put not just one , but two satellites into orbit and taking steps towards forming a space agency.

Aside from ISDApp, the talent and ideas produced by the local NASA space apps challenge is proof of what more Filipinos can bring to the field.

The team believes they and more Filipino innovators can also make a global impact.

They point to NASA's space program and the historic moon landing as inspiration.

"We learned how many times they attempted and failed in their mission to the moon. After years of attempts, they gradually perfected their craft," said Jeddah Legaspi.

Martin added: "Being there and knowing the story behind Apollo 11, it serves as our inspiration that we should not give up whatever the hindrances."

They agree that more challenging days are ahead of them as they launch ISDApp. 

But like that "indescribable" rocket launch they witnessed from nearly 500 kilometers away, they are focused on the possibilities. 

"It's really like that. You need to try and try, and you'll see that you will create a momentous event or thing that would make its mark on people, once you get it right," Legaspi said.