Who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

The three Houston innovators to know this week represent new, exciting things for the innovation ecosystem. Courtesy photos

The movers and shakers within the Houston innovation ecosystem come from all kinds of industries — from private equity to supercomputing. This week's innovators to know reflect that industry diversity and are bringing something new to the table.

Jon Nordby, managing director of Houston's MassChallenge Texas chapter

Jon Nordby, former exec at Houston Exponential, will lead the inaugural Houston MassChallenge cohort. Courtesy of MassChallenge

Jon Nordby, who recently served as Houston Exponential's director of strategy since its launch, was named as the managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, a zero-equity startup accelerator.

"MassChallenge's not-for-profit, no equity model is uniquely suited to accelerate the development of Houston's innovation ecosystem and is the foundation early-stage startups need to get to the point of disruption or pivot as fast as possible," says Nordby in a release.

Before HX, Nordby served as vice president of talent and innovation at the Greater Houston Partnership, and was essential in creating the organization's Innovation Initiative. Click here to learn more about the appointment.

Matthew Lamont, managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

Matthew Lamont isn't technically a Houstonian, but the managing director of Perth, Australia-based DownUnder GeoSolutions gets the honorary title for bringing one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, nicknamed Bubba, to the Houston area. In fact, perhaps Lamont accepts the recognition on behalf of Bubba, who — while inanimate — is definitely a Houstonian.

DUG is heavily investing in Houston, and Bubba is just the start. The company plans to start on a friend for Bubba later this year and bring an even more powerful supercomputer to the market by 2021. Read more about Lamont, Bubba, and all that DUG is doing in Houston here.

Taseer Badar, founder and CEO of ZT Corporate

Taseer Badar is in the business of making money. Courtesy of ZT Corporate

Taseer Badar will shoot it to you straight: Houston startups struggling to find capital might need to look nationally or globally.

"Investors in Houston want positive earnings before interest, tax, and amortization," he says. "But that doesn't mean it's not possible in New York, Dallas, Austin, or other cities. There are technology conferences everywhere, that's a great way to get known as a startup."

As CEO and founder of ZT Corporate with 1,000 investors to manage, he knows private equity, and what it takes to invest. Read more about Badar here.

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A Rice University scientist will be working on the team for NASA's latest Mars rover. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."

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