eavesdropping online

Overheard: NASA administrator shares Houston's potential as a commercial space hub

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine joined the Greater Houston Partnership for the State of Space online event this week. Photo via NASA.gov

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its inaugural State of Space event featuring a keynote address by Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, that touched on the many ongoing projects at Houston's Johnson Space Center.

The online event, which also featured speeches from GHP President Bob Harvey and JSC Mark Geyer, took place Tuesday, December 15, for GHP members and nonmembers alike.

In his address, Bridenstine discussed the commercialization of space, how politics have affected the agency's history, and the exciting projects underway — including returning man to the moon. Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

"Houston is a city that chooses to take on humankind's boldest challenges head-on, and through that work we have built Houston as a technology-oriented city."

— Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. Harvey called out, specifically, the Johnson Space Center and its history as the mecca for human space flight, as well as the emerging Houston Spaceport, which hopes to combine innovation across industries, from space to energy and life sciences.

"In fiscal year '21, NASA will see the first two lunar landings of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services — this is an initiative led in Houston where American companies will serve science and technology payloads to the surface of the moon to prepare for human missions."

— Mark Geyer, director of JSC. Geyer mentions this initiative specifically, as well as 2020's collaboration with SpaceX to have the first American launch since 2011. Geyer also calls out NASA's new Commercial Crew Program. "All of these things position Houston to be a leader and a focal point for this new commercial space ecosystem, which is national and global in nature," Geyer says.

"We are very fortunate to have a center like Johnson in a city like Houston — a city that produces talent, that has an amazing workforce, a dedication to education and to the STEM fields."

— Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator. Bridenstine, a Rice University alumnus, adds that the JSC currently has more programs and projects under development at any point in history.

"Johnson is focused like a laser on Mission Control. ... The No. 1 project NASA has, which we celebrated last month, is 20 years of humans working and living in space continuously."

— Bridenstine says, noting some of the continued missions like Artemis, which will return humans to the surface of the moon, and Gateway, an outpost orbiting the moon to support continued human space exploration.

"Our goal is to put an American flag on Mars — the moon is the proving ground, and Mars is the destination."

— Bridenstine says regarding NASA's focus on returning to the moon.

"I am judging my time as NASA administrator based on whether or not — when my children are my age — we are still on the moon and on Mars."

— Bridenstine says. He notes that part of moving forward is looking back and learning about programs got canceled and why, and which ones were sustainable and why. In some cases, says Bridenstine, who served in U.S. Congress for five years, it was due to divisive politics.

"The Johnson Space Center is quite well positioned for attracting a lot of commercial industry and international partners."

— Bridenstine says when asked about Houston's potential for attracting space business. He mentions how crucial Houston-based Mission Control is and always has been, as well as the emerging focus on Gateway, which will be open for other countries to be supported by. "I think Houston is in great shape — between Mission Control and the Gateway."

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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