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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

 
 

Plug and Play, an international accelerator and investment group with a presence in Houston, joined a panel to discuss startup investment, networking, and more during the pandemic. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

It's no secret that the spread of COVID-19 has greatly affected startup ecosystems by shutting down coworking and accelerator spaces and providing economic uncertainty in the venture capital world. However, organizations focused on investment and acceleration are still working to virtually guide startups virtually.

Plug and Play Tech Center, an accelerator and investment group based in Silicon Valley that recently launched its Houston presence, is still offering support and even investments to startups as the pandemic continues on. One way they've recently done so is through Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to answer questions from Houston entrepreneurs.

On the panel, Neda Amidi, partner and global head of health at Plug and Play Tech Center, Milad Malek, associate at Plug and Play Ventures, and Payal Patel, director at Plug and Play Houston, discussed concerns and questions about the organization's dedication to Houston, advice amid the pandemic, and more. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Timing and opportunity set up the Plug and Play Houston office. The mayor and other business leaders in Houston had seen what happens in our Silicon Valley office and with all the things that are going on in the burgeoning startup community in Houston, we saw the opportunity.”

— Patel says on how Houston snagged its very own Plug and Play location. "Given the high concentration of large companies here — as well as the growing number of investment opportunities — we moved quite quickly to open the office here," she adds.

“There’s a number of great entrepreneurs here in this city. I think a missing ingredient has been the number of early stage investments — especially in that Seed or series A stage. So, we hope to make an impact in that. Our CEO has publicly stated that he’d like to make five investments in Houston a year.”

— Patel shares about Plug and Play's investment strategy in Houston. She adds that five investments in Houston a year is the bare minimum, and they actually are striving for more.

“[Investing virtually is] kind of the same process, but we definitely try to make sure we have cameras on and distractions are away, really giving that entrepreneur that same experience as we can in a face-to-face meeting."

— Amidi says on how Plug and Play's investment team approaches investment meetings and pitches during this time. She explains that during the beginning of the pandemic, most of their investments were with companies that had existing relationships with or follow on deals. Now they have made investments in companies they've never met in person. She says Plug and Play has relied on its network to give feedback on these potential deals.

“During COVID, we’ve recommended to a lot of our portfolio companies to raise more than what they needed at the time to be able to power through what’s happening now and what will happen on the economy side as well."

— Amidi says about investment advice they've given to Plug and Play startups.

“A lot of hardware companies get too intense in terms of thinking about one avenue of fundraising. Spend a lot more time thinking about fundraising strategy.”

Malek says on fundraising for hardware startups specifically. He adds that there are other options for generating cash flow, like grants. "Don't forget the business side of things" he adds. "I know early on, a lot of founders are focused on the technology and prototyping, but it's important as well to think about a compelling narrative for potential investors — even if you're pre-revenue."

"For SaaS, it’s important to have a unique differentiation. There are a lot of copy cats in this realm. It’s ok to be doing something that has competitors — every startup has competitors."

— Malek says about software-as-a-service startups pitching to investors. "It's a red flag when we're talking to a startup — especially one with a SaaS product — that says we don't have competitors," he adds, saying it's usually not true.

“A lot of investors out there prefer teams with multiple founders and not just one founder. It never hurts, at least in an investor’s eyes, to have two or three founders.”

— Malek explains, responding to a question about how to begin the process of bringing another co-founder on board. Investors, he says, value a team with diverse backgrounds and expertise.

“Take your time — it’s kind of like picking a spouse or partner. You want to make sure you’re compatible.”

Amidi adds, saying it's an exceptionally difficult process nowadays. She recommends reaching out to your network for leads on a potential co-founder or even looking into sites like AngelList or LinkedIn.

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