Are CASIS Funding "Commitments" Just Smoke and Mirrors?

Keith's note: CASIS is tasked to manage the portion of the International Space Station designated as the ISS National Laboratory. But other than NASA funding, CASIS has failed to attract any significant income other than that provided - by NASA. Yet they want you to think that people beating a path to their door with multi-million dollar "commitments" in hand. Exactly what are these CASIS "commitments"?

According to the CASIS Strategic Plan, page 11, CASIS says that it will "Develop a robust financial model to supplement government funding. CASIS funding from NASA is currently projected at $15M per year, to cover operating costs and to provide seed money for promising R&D. To meet the variety of demands on personnel, infrastructure, business processes and outreach that will grow over time, CASIS must develop additional resources in the form of partnerships and funding and create rigorous business and economic models in order to sustain these. Sources will include private financiers, corporate sponsorship, philanthropists and federal grants that may leverage cost sharing and equity investment in new ventures. Additionally, CASIS will practice management excellence in its operating models to ensure costs are minimized while ISS utilization is maximized effectively toward mission success."

In its April 2015 report "International Space Station: Measurable Performance Targets and Documentation Needed to Better Assess Management of National Laboratory" the GAO noted (page 7) "According to the cooperative agreement, CASIS will solicit non-NASA funding for research by targeting various sources such as government grants, foundation funding, charitable contributions, private equity, venture financing, and private investors and facilitate matching of projects that meet the research objectives with those qualified funding sources."

So it is quite clear that CASIS is supposed to be out beating the bushes looking for funding and contributions. So far their success is puzzling to say the least. On one hand they claim to be making all manner of agreements and relationships with the private sector but when it comes to documenting actual contributions, well. There really are none - at least not the kind that a non-profit organization usually documents i.e. cash or in-kind donations.

For all intents and purposes, CASIS is totally dependent upon NASA for its funding. As I noted in "CASIS Has No Idea How To Raise Money - Only How To Spend It" last month:

"If you look at their IRS 990 forms from 2011, 2012, and 2013 (the only returns available) you will see that for at least the past 3 years 99.9% of CASIS' income was from NASA.

- In 2013 total revenue for CASIS Was $15,285,388. They received $15,273,635 from NASA; $9,193 from other sources, $2,525 from investments - and $35 from memberships (sounds like they only had one member). 99.92% of their income was from NASA. (source: 2013 Form 990)

- In 2012 total revenue for CASIS Was $15,279,936. They received $15,274,726 from NASA; $5,000 from other sources, $2,414 from investments - and $210 from memberships. 99.96% of their income was from NASA.(source: 2012 Form 990)

- In 2011 total revenue for CASIS Was $11,547,999. They received $11,544,789 from NASA (but they list it as "federated campaigns") $1,774 from investments - and $3,210 from memberships. 99.97% of their income was from NASA. (source: 2011 Form 990)

And if you look at Part IX of the 990 forms for 2011, 2012, and 2013, none of the "functional expenses" went toward "fundraising". CASIS did not even try to raise any external funds - at least that is what they told the IRS." But yet there's all these "commitments" form companies that they claim to have raised.

In its report, GAO notes (page 19) "According to CASIS officials, it has been challenging to raise additional funding from external sources to supplement the amount of funding provided by NASA to support and sustain its operations because CASIS is a new non-profit entity. Although CASIS's business development team is actively identifying partnerships and funding opportunities with commercial and non-profit granting organizations, CASIS officials said that it takes time to identify, develop, and mature these partnerships. CASIS and NASA officials said that the value of doing research aboard the ISS National Laboratory has to be further demonstrated so commercial industries can be convinced it is worth the high investment. Both NASA and CASIS officials said that demonstrating the value of research on the ISS as a substitute for ground-based research is a tremendous and important effort that is necessary to open a marketplace for space research. NASA officials stated that doing research aboard the ISS National Laboratory can take upwards of 2 to 3 years to plan and execute, time lines that are generally not acceptable to commercial companies that desire a more rapid return on their investments."

CASIS admits that raising funds is challenging. But despite this near complete lack of any documented donations or contributions or income other than NASA funding on their IRS 990 forms, CASIS still crows about all the funding commitments they have put into place with the private sector. Again, what exactly is a "commitment" as far as CASIS is concerned? you go to the CASIS Metrics Dashboard and a box "Funding Commitments Received" (screen grab) says "$12,106,425 as of Q3 2015". If you click on that box a new thing comes up that says "Each quarter CASIS will report all funding commitments received. Such commitments include all cash gifts, pledges, in-kind gifts, and other types of support that have a monetary value in support of the CASIS mission." Despite this claim only $1,899,192 in Q1 2015 is listed as of November 2015 - yet the small box on the main Metrics Dashboard page says data is valid as of Q3 2015 - so which one of these statements is correct?. FY 2014 is listed as have $10,207,233 in commitments. So, subtracting $10,207,233 from $12,106,425 would yield (I guess) $1,899,192 of commitments in 2015 as of Q3 2015.

What are these "commitments"? Are they pledges? IOUs? Is there a formal memoranda of understanding between CASIS and the entities making these commitments? Are these commitments tax deductible when the check gets written? How long are these commitments valid i.e. do they expire? Who gets the money - CASIS? NASA? Someone else? Do the commitments get paid directly to third parties without CASIS as a middle man? Note again that none of the Form 990s filed by CASIS with the IRS thus far represent millions of dollars in non-NASA income/donations as these "commitments" might otherwise suggest.

Nor does CASIS provide any detail as to where these commitments come from or exactly what form(s) they take. CASIS loves to show lots of corporate logos but never explains why these logos are there in the first place. Does CASIS have a formal relationship with any or all of these companies? If so what is the nature of these relationships?

This 29 October 2015 CASIS press release is curious and is typical of the confusing nature of what commitments and grants mean at CASIS "CASIS and The Boeing Company Partner and Award $500,000 in Grants Through MassChallenge". CASIS is awarding money as a "partner" with Boeing - that is what the title says. The release says "The combined grant prize for this collaboration is $500,000 and will provide the two awarded companies seed funding and assist with hardware costs for flight to the ISS National Lab." How much money does Boeing give and who do they give it to - CASIS? Or does Boeing write a check directly to the two companies mentioned in the release? How much money does CASIS contribute to this? How is this Boeing donation reflected in the commitments CASIS shows on their website?

Then there's this 7 July 2015 CASIS release: "Governor Baker, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and CASIS Announce Winners of Galactic Grant Competition" which says "The winning companies are Nanobiosym, Inc. and Zaiput Flow Technologies, both located in Cambridge. The grant funding will allow Zaiput and Nanobiosym to leverage up to $7.4 million per project of support from CASIS to fly their projects up to station, conduct their projects on station, and bring the experiments back to earth." So does any of this $7.4 million show up as a CASIS commitment? Or is this internal company funding that CASIS does not count as a commitment? Given that CASIS only shows less than $2 million of commitments for 2015 it would seem that it does not.

To be certain CASIS does spend NASA money flying a lot of interesting - and potentially valuable things to the ISS. But so far its only NASA money that is being spent to do this - CASIS just recycles it and paints it a different color. Sure it takes time, but after 4 years and over $50 million of NASA funds, CASIS is still treading water. Indeed, given its murky way of characterizing contributions it is rather hard to figure out exactly who is giving what to whom - and why. CASIS press releases, infographics, and stark IRS 990 forms paint a picture of the illusion of external contributions - but the substance is far from tangible.

Based on partial figures for 2015 it would seem that nothing has really changed again this year - and that little has changed since CASIS was created. If they haven't gotten their act together by now, will they ever do so?

- Examining Staff and Board Member Salaries at CASIS, earlier post
- CASIS Has No Idea How To Raise Money - Only How To Spend It, earlier post
- Trying To Understand CASIS Press and Social Media Impact, earlier post
- Previous CASIS posts

  • submit to reddit


Join our mailing list

Monthly Archives

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on November 17, 2015 8:49 PM.

Never Ask NASA a Simple Question was the previous entry in this blog.

When In Doubt, Listen to Carl Sagan is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.