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Houston experts at SXSW: Why now is the opportune time for space commercialization

Houston's primed to lead space innovation into the future — it's already happening here, as one panel at SXSW explains. Image via axiomspace.com

For all of the time they've been on earth, humans have looked up and wondered what was out there. Now more than ever, as a recent panel of experts discussed, humans are equipped to find out.

“We actually have, for the very first time, not just the ability to answer those questions, but to be able to go and live among the stars,” says Douglas Terrier, associate director for vision and strategy at NASA's Johnson Space Center. “It’s really a phenomenal thing to think that we are existing at this time.”

Terrier was joined by fellow panelists Matt Ondler, CTO of Axiom Space, and Tim Crain, CTO of Intuitive Machines, along with moderator Arturo Machuca, director of Houston Spaceport, to explore what has contributed to this unique moment in time for space commercialization. The panel, which was presented by Houston Spaceport and hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, took place at Houston House at SXSW on Sunday, March 13.

An industry that was run exclusively by the government has evolved to include commercialization — and not just on a corporate level.

“We’re at this inflection point where access to space is easier — companies are emerging and it’s not just NASA and big companies like Boeing and Lockheed that can participate in space,” Ondler says.

This evolution was crucial to continue developing the technologies needed to advance the industry. Ondler's company Axiom Space is working on the first commercial space station for lower earth orbit, or LEO. This project will be 100 to 1,000 times less expensive than what it cost to build the International Space Station.

“We’re really leveraging so much history and so much of the government’s investment to build our commercial space station,” Ondler says.

The LEO economy is a trillion dollar economy — and one that has been overtaken by commercial companies, which is exactly what NASA needed to allow for it to refocus efforts to returning to the moon with its Artemis project.

“We’ve gotten over that first obstacle where we’ve commercialized operations of low earth orbit,” Terrier says. “That frees us up to look further.”

For decades, the aerospace industry has been responsible for churning out technologies that, in addition to their space application, can make a difference on earth as well.

“We spend a lot of money getting to space, but what it does is push forward all of these things we have to invent, and they find their ways into application in medicine, water purification, clean energy — all return tenfold value to our society," Terrier says on the panel.

Today, Terrier says the space economy is over $400 billion — and only a quarter of that is government investment. With this influx of companies working in space innovation, Houston has all it needs to be a leader in the field.

“Innovation and the ability to commercially engage in space requires a lot of ideas and new ways of looking of things,” Crain says, pointing out the area around the JSC and the spaceport. “The more opportunities we have for these ideas to come together and interchange, that is going to open up the capability to make commercialization successful.”

He continues saying the city is building a critical mass with space tech startups, talent within engineering and manufacturing, government support, and more.

“It’s more open now than it's ever been for both the city and for NASA to support companies who want to work in Houston,” Crain says. “When you put all those ingredients together the opportunities are really endless, and it’s the place to be.”

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The Texas Medical Center visited the Netherlands to secure a deal that creates a BioBridge to the country and Houston. Photo courtesy of TMC

The Texas Medical Center may be based in Houston, but the organization has again grown its global impact.

Since 2016, TMC’s BioBridges have worked with 88 startup companies. Those include strategic alliances with four other countries. Australia, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland are all among TMC’s BioBridges partners. As of today, add the Netherlands to that list.

On September 27, TMC president and CEO, William F. McKeon, and Carmen van Vilsteren, chair of Health~Holland, Top Sector Life Sciences & Health (LSH), signed an agreement in Rotterdam. The TMC Netherlands BioBridge Memorandum of Understanding codifies the innovative goals of the partnership. Essentially, the BioBridge program provides a means for entrepreneurs, researchers, clinicians and industry partners from other countries to access the US market, as well as TMC experts.

“The TMC Netherlands BioBridge represents an unparalleled opportunity for collaboration and growth,” Ashley McPhail, chief external affairs & administration officer at Texas Medical Center said in a press release. “The Netherlands has solidified its position as a global leader in the field of life sciences and health, with a thriving ecosystem of research institutions, innovative companies, and highly skilled professionals. This strategic partnership will bring positive benefits to patients, clinicians and industry partners on a global scale.”

This lifeline for international healthcare companies makes expansion into the United States far smoother. The Global Innovators Launch Pad allows for startup founders to take part in a 10-week residency at the TMC Innovation Factory that will teach them about foundational infrastructure, clinical evidence and funding in the US.

“Since Texas is an important hub for innovation in the MedTech and digital health sectors, the collaboration with Texas Medical Center creates opportunities for Dutch companies looking to expand their international reach. Vice versa, it gives companies in Texas access to the vibrant Dutch Life Sciences & Health sector,” said van Vilsteren.

That exchange includes members of the TMC gaining the opportunity to participate in the Health~Holland Visitors Programme (HVP), “Shaping the Healthcare of the Future.”

The annual event invites high-level representatives from the private sector, NGOs, knowledge institutions, healthcare providers and different tiers of government to share their expertise.

It's the fifth partnership of its kind for TMC, with the last one being with Ireland, announced last year. TMC's other global initiatives include accelerators with Denmark and the United Kingdom, both announced earlier this year.

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