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Overheard: Houston experts weigh in on the future of the Space City

The panel of experts discussed the Space City's history — but also its future as a leader in space exploration. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Houston's been known as the Space City for about 50 years since "Houston" was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. But whether or not that nickname will continue to stick was up for debate at a 2019 SpaceCom panel on November 21.

The panel, entitled "Regional Benefits of a Commercial Space Economy: Case Study Houston," the panelists set out to discuss the city's rich history of space exploration, as well as to answer the question of where Houston's space industry is headed.

"We could ask that question in a passive way, but my preference is that here in Houston we ask the question now, answer it, and be very proactive and deliberate about making sure we get the outcome that we want," says Vernon McDonald, senior vice president at KBR and moderator of the discussion.

If you missed the enlightening discussion, here are a few takeaways from the panelists.

"Houston is in this great position to be this beacon to lead entrepreneurs and inspire other regions to explore further."

Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy. Jenet, who is based in Brownsville, Texas, is working to develop a vibrant commercial space hub in South Texas. In a lot of ways, the area looks to Houston's history for its development, he says.

"We built a community of engineers and scientists and a workforce that's all vested in the outcome of the human space flight program."

Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines. The creation of the Johnson Space Center developed generations within the community of scientists and engineers, but, moving forward, Houston has to be intentional about building its talent base. "I'm very passionate about doing that here in Houston," Altemus adds.

"There's a beacon of hope for our community if we can organize around it and attract commercial business here to keep this city the Space City, but redefine ourselves as a commercial space hub."

Altemus says, adding that it's going to take further development, talent, and funds — like what's happening at the Houston Spaceport — to make this transition.

"Over the years, Houston took space for granted. Houston started to focus on the bigger industries that brought in funding and jobs."

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At the risk of being unpopular, Gonzalez mentions that the city's attention has been diverted from space exploration. However, he adds, there are new initiatives from the Greater Houston Partnership and Houston First that are picking up the slack.

"The answers to Houston delivering on its potential is going to be collaborations — how well we collaborate."

Harvin Moore, president at Houston Exponential. Houston is collaborative, and the city needs to make sure its resources are inclusive as commercial space develops in town.

"I'd like to say that Houston is the birthplace of human space flight, and in 50 years, I'd like to see the city be the leader and the point of the spirit for human exploration internationally and commercially out in mars and beyond.

Altemus responds when asked about the Space City's next 50 years.

"I think what Houston will be most proud of in 50 years is that we played an extremely important role in shaping how Texas leads the world in commercial space exploration."

Jenet, who mentions that there's space exploration innovation happening statewide.

"When you think about what [leading space exploration] company will be here fifty years from now, I don't think it's been created yet. But I would like that company to be here in Houston."

Gonzalez says, adding that the first trillionaire is likely to make his or her fortune in the space industry, and he wants that money here in Houston.

"A lot of our future is not going to be based on what huge companies or government are doing but much more about entrepreneurs."

Moore says, emphasizing the need for developing startup resources in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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