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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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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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