Space city win

Global space startup and innovation connector opens Houston branch

Australia-based Moonshot has opened a Houston chapter. Miriam Espacio / Pexels

It's almost an understatement to say that Houston's space economy is taking off like a rocket.

On May 28, four companies in the Houston area — Axiom Space Inc., Boeing Co., KBRwyle, and NanoRacks LLC — were tasked with helping chart NASA's course in the space economy, whose global value is projected to climb as high as $3 trillion by 2040. Three days later, Houston-based Intuitive Machines LLC was awarded a $77.2 million contract to send as many as five NASA payloads to the moon.

And a month later, on June 26, officials broke ground on the first phase of Houston Spaceport, a 450-acre project at Ellington Airport that will serve as a sort of control center for aerospace research and manufacturing, and commercial space operations.

Then, on July 19 — a day ahead of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 man-on-the-moon mission — Australia-based startup Moonshot Space Co. launched a chapter in Houston to help foster the region's multibillion-dollar space economy. Through its programming, which will kick off this fall, Moonshot seeks to corral entrepreneurs, students, job seekers, business executives, investors, university researchers, government officials, and others in an effort to nurture and promote Houston's space economy.

Troy McCann, founder and CEO of Moonshot, believes Houston — home to NASA's Johnson Space Center — can emerge as the epicenter of the global space economy.

"You'd have to have been living under a rock for the past 50 years not to be aware of Houston's stellar aerospace ecosystem," McCann says. "It's got both the historical credibility and a suite of … successful commercial space ventures based there."

"We want to help fine-tune Houston's space economy by providing a proven framework to elevate people and their ideas into successful teams and scalable businesses," McCann adds, "and to create the industries of the future and solve humanity's greatest challenges."

The Houston chapter, a nonprofit venture, is Moonshot's first in the U.S. and second outside Australia. Nathan Johnson, a Houston attorney who specializes in space law and business development, has been tapped to direct it.

"We're in the process of starting chapters across the globe because we believe that the next Nikola Tesla or Marie Curie is out there somewhere, but they don't have access to the resources they need to change the world for the better," McCann says. "Today, the average person has the ability to start a commercial space program for less than the cost of a fast-food franchise."

Johnson says Houston's prominence as NASA's hub for human spaceflight, its status as the "Energy Capital of the World," and the presence of the Texas Medical Center combine to make Space City a potent force in the space economy.

"My hope is to see Houston continue to lead in space and become a hub for the next wave of space commercialization," Johnson says. "We have a wide breadth of industries, and I would like to see that terrestrial expertise extend to new market applications in space."

If Houston does evolve into a nucleus for the global space economy, it stands to reap sky-high financial rewards. Various analysts forecast the global space economy will soar to between $1 trillion and $3 trillion by 2040, up from an estimated $415 billion in 2018.

"Space is and will be a global endeavor, depending on a strong economy, smart industries, and a talented workforce," Johnson says. "Houston already has all of those things, continues to actively develop them at all levels of the community, and does so in a way that reflects the world's population."

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Building Houston

 
 

When access to a location is the difference between financial success and failure, cooperation from the community might be the right move to prevent costly conflicts. Pexels

In Pittsburgh, a coalition of 100 community groups brokered a deal with developers of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team for $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements. In Oakland, California, developers of an $800 million high-tech complex promised local residents 50 percent of its construction jobs. And in Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center is working with residents to shield them from skyrocketing rents.

Community Benefits Agreements, or CBAS, as these agreements are called, are increasingly common between businesses and the places where they want to set up shop. But are they worth the money? To find out, Rice Business professor Kate Odziemkowska joined Sinziana Dorobantu of New York University to analyze market reactions to 148 CBA announcements between indigenous communities and mining firms in Canada. The financial value of these agreements, the researchers found, was real.

While it's easy to imagine that CBAs are just costly giveaways, they're more than goodwill gestures. Instead, they are legally enforceable contracts to distribute benefits from a new project and to govern the response to any potential social and environmental disruptions. For businesses, the researchers found, they are also good strategy, because they prevent costly, drawn-out conflict.

To conduct their research, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu analyzed a sample of 148 legally binding CBAs signed in Canada between mining firms and indigenous communities between 1999 and 2013. In Canada, mining companies and indigenous communities often hammer out agreements about extraction and use of local resources. Studying only the mining sector let the researches control for the economic variations that characterize different industries.

Since CBA negotiations cannot be disclosed, the announcement of such agreements represents new market information. To conduct their study, the researchers tracked the market reaction to these announcements, using a technique that measured short-term returns.

Creating CBAs from the start, they found, can head off catastrophic costs later. That's because even when a company has disproportionate economic strength, the public relations, legal and economic costs of community conflict can be draining. Consider the 1,900-kilometer Dakota Access oil pipeline, whose developers faced six months of round-the-clock protests that included nearly 15,000 volunteers from around the world. The drumbeat of litigation and negative news coverage still continues today.

In general, the researchers found, the more experience a community has with protests or blockades, the more firms gained from signing a CBA. Property rights protections also provide strong incentive for making a deal. Mining companies, for example, need access to land to do business. Communities with robust property rights to the resource or location sought by the firm have strong standing to stop that firm if they don't make a deal.

Because access to valuable resources like land or intellectual property can mean the difference between financial success or failure, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu said, the lesson from their findings extends far beyond Canadian mines. It's a lesson Disney learned the hard way when it failed to acknowledge the culture of Norway's Sami people in "Frozen." Assailed for cultural appropriation by using, but not crediting, traditional Sami music, Disney quickly made amends. After negotiating with the Sami people, Disney pledged to consult with them and portray them thoughtfully in the film's sequel.

The deal may have cost Disney on the front end, but it was nothing compared to the advantage of freezing out years of bad press.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Kate Odziemkowska, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

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