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Houston's Johnson Space Center names history-making new director

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston has witnessed a universe of history-making moments. There's now another milestone to add to the list.

On June 30, Vanessa Wyche was named director of Johnson Space Center, becoming the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Wyche had been acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors.

"As the home to America's astronaut corps, International Space Station mission operations, the Orion and Gateway programs, and a host of future space developments, Johnson is a world leader in human space exploration and is playing a key role in the next giant leaps in American excellence in space," Wyche says. "I look forward to working with everyone as we push forward to the moon and inspire a new generation of explorers to reach for the stars."

Before being named acting director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche had been deputy director since August 2018. Wyche, a 31-year NASA veteran, also has served as assistant director of the center and director of the center's Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, worked in the executive office of the NASA administrator, served as a flight manager for several space shuttle missions, and has led other center-level technical organizations and programs. The South Carolina native holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Clemson University.

Wyche succeeds Mark Geyer as director of Johnson Space Center. Geyer stepped down in May to focus on his cancer treatment. He had led the center since 2018 as its 12th director. In a video released in May, Geyer said he had been coping with an unidentified form of cancer for about 12 months.

Geyer remains with NASA as a senior adviser to the agency's associate administrator.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson simultaneously announced Wyche's appointment and Janet Petro's appointment as director of Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Both Vanessa and Janet are exceptional leaders who will help propel NASA forward as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before," Nelson says. "It's an incredible time at NASA, and with Vanessa and Janet leading the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, NASA will embark on a new era of space exploration — starting with the Artemis I launch to the moon later this year."

Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, became NASA administrator in May following his nomination by President Biden. During his congressional tenure, Nelson was one of NASA's staunchest advocates and even flew aboard the Columbia space shuttle. He succeeds acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Jurczyk ran the agency after the departure of Bridenstine in January, at the end of the Trump presidency.

In 2019, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar reported the nearly 1,700-acre Johnson Space Center generates an economic impact of $4.7 billion in Texas and supports more than 52,000 jobs.

"NASA's history is intertwined with Texas' history, grit, and can-do spirit, and NASA's future in Texas will be crucial in building tomorrow's Texas economy," Hegar said at the time.

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Building Houston

 
 

nVenue's proprietary predictive analytics appear at the bottom right corner of the screen on Apple TV broadcasts. Photo via nvenue.com

Using technology to solve big problems has always been Kelly Pracht's career, but she never thought she'd be able use her skills for the sports world she's a lifelong fan of.

After spending nearly 20 years at HP Inc. in various leadership roles and across technology, Pract was watching a baseball game when something clicked for her. Baseball — and its endless data points and metrics — wasn't serving up analytics that the fans cared about. Teams and leagues had their own metic priorities, but fans just want to engage with the game, their team, and the players.

"I saw a gap in how we handle the data coming from the field and how that can impact the fan — and nobody was getting it right," Pracht, co-founder and CEO of nVenue, tells InnovationMap. "I saw technologists coming up with the most nonsensical solutions. For fans like me, coming from my crazy sports family from West Texas where my dad was a coach, I knew that these solutions were a huge miss."

She gives the example of a wearable technology for the viewer at home that can feel what it feels like for the players on the field who get hit. Pracht says it seems like companies were trying to fit technology into the sport, rather than thinking of what the fans really wanted.

She had the idea for a data-driven fan tool in 2017 and nVenue was born. She started building out the code and the team started testing it out at Astros games at Minute Maid.

"What great years to develop this platform. It was fun — these were not boring baseball games," Pracht says. The Astros have won their division four out of the past five years, including winning the World Series in 2017.

Kelly Pracht is the CEO and co-founder of nVenue. Photo courtesy of nVenue

At first, nVenue was using historical data, and that in itself was impressive. But then, Pracht and her team decided to take it live. After building its proprietary analytics platform, nVenue could use data to make predictions in real time.

"We spent over a year — all of 2019 — mastering timing and putting it into a platform," Pracht says, explaining how they built out the artificial intelligence and designed an app for fans to interface with. "We wanted to be able to predict and play. We had over 180 people during the 2019 World Series and playoffs."

The app and algorithm were good — and nVenue expanded into football. Then, the pandemic hit and sports halted completely. Pracht says they pivoted to a B2B model but wasn't seeing any real opportunities for the platform — until the 2021 Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator.

"In kind of a last-ditch effort, we applied to the NBC Comcast accelerator somewhere around August or September of 2020," Pracht says, explaining that she wasn't seeing a sustainable business so it was get into the program or close up shop. "And we got in. They just resonated with everything we said — we found our people."

The accelerator gave nVenue the jumpstart it needed, and as sports returned, the company found its momentum again. Now, the company is headquartered in Dallas with 14 employees all over and three — including Pracht — in Houston. The company has raised its $3.5 million seed round co-led by KB Partners and Corazon Capital and plans to raise a Series A next year.

After a few broadcasts last season, opportunity came knocking by way of Apple TV and Houston-based TV Graphics. The companies collaborated on a deal and, two weeks before the 2022 season started, nVenue got the greenlight to have onscreen analytics on Apple TV broadcasts.

"In under two weeks we structured the deal, convinced them it worked, pulled together every bit of testing we could — by then we only had one week of pre-season games to test — and we pulled it off," Pracht says.

The technology has tons of potential when it comes to sports betting, which is a growing business across the country. Pracht says nVenue isn't looking to compete with the providers on the scene, but instead work with them as an analytics tool.

"We broke down the market down to microbets or in-the-moment bets that are going to happen annually by 2025 — it's 156 billion microbets a year, which turns out to be 3 billion a week," Pracht says.

She adds that new technologies in the streaming world – like no-delay, latency streaming — is only going to make the sports betting world more lucrative, and nVenue will be right there to ride that wave.

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