eavesdropping in Houston

Overheard: Space experts discuss commercialization, innovation, and Houston's future

What's Houston's role in the modern era for aerospace? And how can the industry foster public-private collaboration? Experts weighed in at a recent event. Photo via NASA

The aerospace industry — much more than other sectors — is run by a mixture of civil, commercial, and military players. And each of these verticals operate very differently.

At a Houston Tech Rodeo event called "Lasso the Moon" put on by Space Force Association and TexSpace, aerospace experts representing various entities — from startups to big tech to education and military organizations — discussed the future of space innovation.

Missed the conversation? Here are five key moments from the event, which included several talks and a panel at The Ion on Monday, February 28.

 "In this age of rapid advancement, Houston has to take an active stance on supporting space innovation. Leaders must leverage all that this great city and our community have to offer, and we must align civil, commercial, and academic communities to work together to build an effective space innovation ecosystem."

— Mayor Sylvester Turner says at the event's welcome address. “Ever since Houston was the first said from the surface of the moon, Houston has been known as the Space City," he says.

“How is the tech industry going so fast in updating their technology, but the government is struggling? … The system is not designed to innovate.”

— United States Space Force Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman says, addressing innovation in space and war operations. He adds, "The system is designed to just do continuous improvement on existing capability. When we talk about the need to shift or jump and revolutionize the technology we are using, there are a lot of things at play working against us."

“Houston is the global energy capital, human spaceflight capital of the world, and has the biggest medical center of the world. All of these sectors are heavily dependent on innovation and technology. And many of these technologies overlap. It’s time to switch to technology verticals.”

— David Alexander, professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Rice University, says in a call for industries in Houston to work together. "If you focus on the technologies, then collaboration happens."

"Houston intimately understands innovation. We come from a city of wildcatters."

— Sarah Duggleby, CEO and cofounder of Venus Aerospace, says in her talk about how she's growing her California-founded company in its new Houston headquarters. She added that Texas makes it "infinitely easier to do business."

"Innovation in our business usually equates to risk. Usually when we start to on a project, we like to use time-proven technologies. Creating onramps for technology and innovation has to be something that we plan."

— Sam Gunderson, lead of partnership development at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says adding: "The other thing that I think creates a challenge for innovation within industry that I think the government needs to improve on is that we often over-define our solution set when we try to (onboard new technology). Leaving room for innovation and for people to bring something in that doesn't solve the problem in the way we anticipated needs to be a part of the way we buy services."

"You're a private business — you're trying to grow, you're trying to scale, you need cash. The government has a lot of it. It's perfectly aligned – if you do it right." 

​— Enrique Oti, CTO at Second Front Systems, says on the process of getting grants and submitting RFPs within government agencies. "There are lots of way to do it, but the only way you can get there as a startup or small company is if you're blatantly asking for the money and information."

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Building Houston

 
 

Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, existing electrical grid infrastructure needs to be able to keep up. Houston-based Revterra has the technology to help.

"One of the challenges with electric vehicle adoption is we're going to need a lot of charging stations to quickly charge electric cars," Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "People are familiar with filling their gas tank in a few minutes, so an experience similar to that is what people are looking for."

To charge an EV in ten minutes is about 350 kilowatts of power, and, as Jawdat explains, if several of these charges are happening at the same time, it puts a tremendous strain on the electric grid. Building the infrastructure needed to support this type of charging would be a huge project, but Jawdat says he thought of a more turnkey solution.

Revterra created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The technology pulls from the grid, but at a slower, more manageable pace. Revterra's battery acts as an intermediary to store that energy until the consumer is ready to charge.

"It's an energy accumulator and a high-power energy discharger," Jawdat says, explaining that compared to an electrical chemical battery, which could be used to store energy for EVs, kinetic energy can be used more frequently and for faster charging.

Jawdat, who is a trained physicist with a PhD from the University of Houston and worked as a researcher at Rice University, says some of his challenges were receiving early funding and identifying customers willing to deploy his technology.

Last year, Revterra raised $6 million in a series A funding round. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

The funding has gone toward growing Revterra's team, including onboarding three new engineers with some jobs still open, Jawdat says. Additionally, Revterra is building out its new lab space and launching new pilot programs.

Ultimately, Revterra, an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, hopes to be a major player within the energy transition.

"We really want to be an enabling technology in the renewable energy transition," Jawdat says. "One part of that is facilitating the development of large-scale, high-power, fast-charging networks. But, beyond that, we see this technology as a potential solution in other areas related to the clean energy transition."

He shares more about what's next for Revterra on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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