out of this world

Bill Nye shares the future of space exploration at Houston's annual SpaceCom

In his SpaceCom 2019 keynote address, Bill Nye shares the breakthrough technology he's been able to develop at The Planetary Society. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

According to Bill Nye, known to most as "The Science Guy" but who now leads the largest non-government space exploration nonprofit, humanity has always asked two questions: How did we get here and are we alone.

"If you want to answer those two questions, you've got to explore space," Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, says in his keynote address at Houston's annual SpaceCom.

The conference, which took over downtown Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center for November 20 and 21, welcomed a record number of attendees from all over the world. Throughout the two days, 2,500 space fans, experts, and professionals from around the world engaged with panels and programming as well as the exhibit hall full of dozens of space companies.

In his keynote address, Nye walked through the history of solar space studies and breakthroughs, from Johannes Kepler's 17th century observation of the sun's solar force on comets to Carl Sagan's work to develop a completely solar powered spacecraft. Sagan, who was a mentor to Nye, passed away in 1996 and didn't get to see his dream become reality.

Nye, however, has accomplished Sagan's goals, and the technology he and The Planetary Society has developed is low cost and completely citizen funded, representing a huge step toward democratizing space.

"We built two spacecrafts for $7 million," Nye says of LightSail 1 and 2.

The first iteration didn't last long, but LightSail 2 equipped with CubeSats — small but mighty satellites — became the first controlled solar sail spacecraft completely propelled by the sun. Solar sails use radiation pressure from the sun as an energy source reacting with extremely thin reflective material that makes up the sail.

The device, which is still in space, represents a lot of potential for long-term space missions since no fuel is needed. While there have been light sails launched in the past, LightSail 2 was the first iteration to be able to be steered from earth in a timely manner. (The device can be turned in a matter of minutes.)

"With this technology, we can democratize space," Nye tells the crowd, sharing that just a few hours before, Time magazine named the technology as the most innovative invention in aerospace.

Nye says that while the work he is doing at The Planetary Society came about as a group of engineers trying to solve a specific problem, the results they have found and the feedback they received represent the world's interest in continuing space exploration in a cost-effective and feasible way.

"Space brings people together," Nye says.

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Building Houston

 
 

New partnership chair, Amy Chonis, gave her address at the 2021 GHP Annual Meeting. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

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