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Houston-based NASA technology strategist aims to connect the entity to startups and technologies across the country

Steven Gonzalez wants to give NASA technology to startups for free. Courtesy of NASA

NASA has 1,400 technologies that are available for licensing across industries, but only 20 percent of those technologies have been licensed — traditionally by mid- to large-sized companies.

NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez, who's had a 30-year career at NASA at the Johnson Space Center, is responsible for moving these technologies out into the community. About four years ago, his department created a program to target startups and engage them with the organization's technology. Startup NASA is a program in which startups can license NASA technology for free for three years before the licensing fees kick in.

"We thought that once we created this program we'd have startups coming to break the door down to get these technologies, and that isn't the case," Gonzalez tells InnovationMap. "So, what I've been focusing on is trying to find was to connect to ecosystems across the country to introduce them to this program and our technology and find people who will be the bridge between us and these ecosystems."

All this month, with the world's focus on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Gozalez is able to benefit from this momentum and reenergized focus on space. He spoke with InnovationMap about his career in space and the future Houston will play in the next 50 years.

InnovationMap: What initially got you interested in space and how did it turn into a career?

Steven Gonzalez: Star Trek, the original series. I had the desire to be Captain Kirk and be on the Starship Enterprise. I was born in New York, and raised in the Northeast. In 8th grade, I already had the bug to go to NASA and be the first in my family to go to college. I remember having all my classes picked out with college course credit, and — by this time we had moved to New Jersey, and we were only the second Spanish family there — the guidance counselor looked at my schedule and told me I would be better going to autoshop.

I went to Boston University and then got my master's at Texas A&M University. Right after A&M, I started at the Johnson Space Center in 1988, and I was working in mission control bringing in new technology. I remember getting there and expecting to see something along the lines of the Starship Enterprise, and it looked the same as it did from the Apollo timeframe. After that, I trained astronauts for a couple years before going back and working to bring the new control center online. The Houston Chronicle compared it to the tech on the Starship Enterprise, and I finally felt like I had arrived.

IM: From your strategic roles to now managing technology, what are some of the challenges you've faced in your NASA career?

SG: I looked at the 20-year strategy for the Johnson Space Center and how to get it positioned for the growth of commercial and international space. It was a great role, and the challenge for NASA predicting a long-term strategy was that every four or eight years, we get a new president, and when we get a new president, we get a new direction. We did all this strategy planning and using all the tools — this was in 2006 before we knew what Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were up to — and we said that over 20 years, we predicted that the commercial market would grow and our role would have to shift. That was a hard message to swallow at that time when we had so much going on.

After working in strategy, I shifted to focus on partnerships, and now my role is technology transfer. After most of my career focused on impacting life space, now this last part of my career is focused on impacting life here on earth. My role now is to move technology out and find technology to bring in — mostly moving technology into startups around the country.

Now, my challenge in my role of moving technology out is that, especially when we go to startups, people think of NASA technology as being space technology. But, of our 1,400 technologies we have, so many of them have already impacted all different industries. So, trying to get people to figure out how to connect to the startup ecosystems is another challenge.

IM: What's been the effect on NASA now that commercialization has ramped up?

SG: First, we were created with a two-fold mission — to explore and to benefit humanity. From day one we have been moving our technology out. Unfortunately, we at NASA have the reputation of giving to the world Tang and Velcro, and neither one of that is true. The reality is so much more fantastic. The camera on our phones and LASIK came from NASA technology. There's a technology I love to talk about. We were working with Texas Children's Hospital, and they had a challenge of moving premature infants from room to room. The gurney would vibrate quite a bit and hurt their internal organs — some would even pass away from this. Our astronauts train two to three hours a day to keep their muscles and bones up and running, so they exercise on treadmills and bikes on the space station. Left unchecked, those vibrations from the equipment would ruin the experiments on the space station. So, we have the technology and expertise here in Houston that we worked with TCH and created a carrier that allows these children to be transferred without any harm to them.

The second part is that our technology is seeding this new commercial space market. Back in the '90s here in Houston, we developed a technology that was an inflatable habitat. When we send astronauts to the moon or mars, they need a spacious habitat that isn't too heavy to be transported via spacecraft. So, we created that technology, and Bob Bigelow, who owns a bunch of hotels and wanted to have the first hotel in space, long story short, he licensed our technology, created this hotel that's circling space and waiting until Uber can transport his paying customers up there. In the process, he thought that NASA and the ISS can use it in the meantime. So it's a technology we started, but we didn't have to commercialize it, someone else did the full development of it.

IM: So, it sounds like it's much more collaborative of a relationship between NASA and commercial entities than it is competitive, would you say?

SG: I'm glad you brought that up. A lot of times people think it's a competition. In the 1960s, it was a competition between us and the Russians. Then, the space station became this collaborative community. With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another. We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from. Also, we still are doing things that are tougher to make money on. We do things that has no return on investment, and the commercial companies are focusing on things they can make a market for.

IM: What role do you see Houston playing in the future of space?

SG: Right now, it's a bit premature to really talk about anything, but we're in conversations with various startup organizations about growth and collaborations. Between NASA, the Houston Spaceport, and the annual SpaceCom, Houston in an incredible position to be the hub for this growing, trillion-dollar commercial space market. Through events like SpaceCom, we are a hub for a lot of international activity. Houston already being a hub for international travel and business already, it could be an international gateway for the space industry.

IM: What does Space City Month mean to you and the city of Houston?

SG: We've always been the Space City, but for a while there, it was taken for granted. It's part of our history, but it's nice to see it brought back into the foreground to realize that it's not just history, it's who we are today. It's been better over the past few years as we've seen this conversation increasing. This anniversary is bringing back to the forefront how Houston embraces space for the future.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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