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Houston Spaceport general manager wants to connect the city to the rest of the world

Commercial space technology is being developed at this moment, and Arturo Machuca wants to make sure the Houston Spaceport is ready for the technology when it's finished. Courtesy of the Houston Airport System

In 2015, Houston became the 10th licensed spaceport in the United States. Now, four years later, it's Arturo Machuca's job as general manager of the Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport to guide the institution from idea into reality.

Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport are co-located just 15 miles outside of downtown Houston and just north of the Johnson Space Center. While major players in commercial space exploration develop the technology for space travel, Machuca and his team at the Houston Airport Systems are working to build Houston's Spaceport to be ready for that technology when it arrives.

Machuca spoke with InnovationMap for the final installment of this month's space-focused interviews in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your career to date. 

Arturo Machuca: I am a very fortunate man in that I have had the chance to be involved in this project that's so relevant to the city of Houston. My background has been in aviation for 38 years. I've worked 21 years in commercial aviation. I've also worked in air service development, working with airlines to add new routes to and from Houston. I've worked in corporate aviation as well.

Now past 10 years since July 2009 been with the Houston Airport System. I was first based at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, then in 2012 I was fortunate enough to work with director Mario Diaz on the inception of the spaceport plans. In 2015, we became the 10th commercial spaceport in the nation.

It's been so much fun. It's so good to come to work where you get to say, "I'm having fun with this."

IM: With the Houston Spaceport being only the 10th licensed in the United States, has it been challenging laying the groundwork?

AM: There has been some challenges in that we are adapting our infrastructure to serve as the commercial space, including very in depth due diligence. But at the same time, it's been easy because of the fact that we are distinguished amongst other spaceports. We are the only truly urban spaceport in the world, which makes it easier from my perspective. Plus, we are the home to Johnson Space Center and a number of space companies based here. While challenging, it's been very good to have those things on our side.

IM: What’s the big picture goal of the Houston Spaceport?

AM: Our goal will be to one day connect Houston to the world by commercial spaceflight. Companies like Virgin Galactic are developing their technology for point-to-point transportation, or space flight. We have no control over that — it's up to them. In the meantime, we continue to take advantage of existing structure and turning it into the spaceport. We use what we already have at Ellington Airport. We're serving aviation today until commercial spaceflight gets here.

IM: The Spaceport just broke ground on Phase I of the transformation. What are the priorities for that initiative?

AM: We have nearly 1,000 acres of land that we can develop. Our vision is to create a cluster of aerospace and aviation companies that allow for us to get to space in a quicker fashion. We have chosen four major areas of development to focus on phase one of the spaceport: drones, micro satellites, aviation and commercial spaceflight, and data and analytics. We're building the neighborhood, if you will, so that companies can come and set up on our land.

We've been working with universities, and about a month ago we just announced the Edge workforce training center where San Jacinto College will train students to support the industry.

IM: The spaceport has quite a few educational partners. Why has that been such a core component to the project?

AM: About 2.5 years ago we were working with a proposal to work with Blue Origin — a company owned by Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon. Blue Origin was looking for a location to build their rocket engine, and we thought the Houston Spaceport was the perfect place. The process took a little over a year, and I am proud to say that we made it to the final two cities. We were competing with Huntsville, Alabama, which is known as Rocket City. We didn't win, but when we went back and asked for feedback, they said that Huntsville offered a tremendous amount of educational support. We clearly realized that it's important to have that direct connection.

IM: What’s Houston’s future role in space?

AM: I think that Houston is poised for success because of the existing components we already have in place, like the Johnson Space Center. The city of Houston is working very closely with the JSC to make sure we remain mission relevant.

Pushing into commercial space flight, I believe that Houston is poised for a tremendous future. We are learning to better coordinate with the players on the government side and the private industry. I envision Houston becoming even a stronger player in the next 50 years because of the development and the growth of assets. I can see us serving as a city where we take passengers from one end of the world to the others using commercial space flight.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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