Eavesdropping in houston

Overheard: Experts share how Houston can lead commercial space exploration

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

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Building Houston

 
 

Blair Garrou will be recognized as the 2022 Trailblazer Award recipient at the Houston Innovation Awards Gala on November 9. Photo courtesy

In less than a month, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential will honor dozens of movers and shakers within the Houston innovation community at the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards — and the first award recipient has officially been named.

Blair Garrou, managing director and founder of Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, has been named the 2022 Trailblazer Award honoree. This award was established to honor a Houston innovation leader and advocate who's making a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community.

"I am very honored to be nominated and named the Trailblazer Award recipient. As many of us who contribute to Houston’s innovation community know, it’s a decades-long commitment," Garrou says.

Last year, the Trailblazer Award was introduced and honored Barbara Burger, former president of Chevron Technology Ventures. Garrou is the second individual to receive the recognition.

"This award is even more special for me since it’s the year after my good friend and colleague, Barbara Burger, was named as the inaugural award winner," he tells InnovaitonMap. "Barbara is a trailblazer for our tech ecosystem in so many ways, especially around diversity and inclusion. Her leadership has provided a framework for me, Mercury, and other leaders and organizations to continue growing Houston’s tech ecosystem in an inclusive, sustainable manner."

Mercury, founded in 2005 by Garrou and Dan Watkins, is an early-stage venture capital organization focused on software technology across the country — particularly focused on middle America or "fly-over" states. According to its website, the VC has created over $9 billion of value within is investment portfolio.

In addition to Mercury, Garrou helped launch and was the director of operations for the Houston Technology Center and led the formation of the Houston Angel Network. He also serves in board and/or advisory roles for The Artemis Fund, DivInc, Houston Exponential, HTX Impact Fund, UTHealth, and more.

"The main purpose of any innovation ecosystem is to help entrepreneurs succeed. These communities need leaders, feeders and instigators," says Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs and 2022 awards judge. "Blair transcends all of these distinct and critical roles for Houston."

Garrou will be honored among the finalists and winners at the Houston Innovation Awards Gala on November 9 at the Ion. Buy tickets now. For sponsorship information, email Chris Buckner at cbuckner@gowcompanies.com

"So many tiles in the mosaic of Houston’s Innovation Ecosystem have Blair’s fingerprints on them," Gale continues. "The earliest echoes of his influence include the Houston Technology Center (a pre-cursor in many ways to Houston Exponential) and the Houston Angel Network. Now decades later his influence continues to reverberate as he continues to be that first believer that Houston needed and that startups are so often looking for. A trailblazer in every sense of the word."

A brief Q&A with this year's honoree:

Houston's innovation ecosystem has evolved significantly since you founded Mercury in 2005. How would you describe your impact on that growth and evolution?

I’ve been helping to grow Houston’s tech ecosystem since 1999, when I joined the Houston Technology Center. Working at HTC, launching the Houston Angel Network, and then working at Genesis Park, gave me a foundation of venture experience, a network, and a community-oriented framework that helped guide my next twenty years. I was greatly inspired by the leaders of those organizations and how they gave back to the Houston community. I hope that my efforts have inspired other tech leaders to give of themselves, while they work on their own businesses, so that Houston can continue to reach its true potential.

​What excites you most about Houston's future as an innovation community?

The best is yet to come. When HX was formed in 2017, VC investment in Houston was less than $300 million per year. In 2021 that figure grew to over $2 billion. Over the last five years, our city has had major growth in almost all areas that matter for a tech ecosystem – the launch of accelerators and coworking centers, tech talent migration, venture capital investment, and venture capital fund formation. Although we are in the midst of a recession, Houston continues to grow in three key industrial sectors of innovation – EnergyTech/ClimateTech, HealthTech, and SpaceTech. Our city has the opportunity to be a national leader in each of these sectors, and drive tremendous job growth in the future.

What’s your favorite part of your role working with startup founders and other innovators?

I love helping founders navigate the ups and downs of the startup lifecycle. From providing founders frameworks to help grow their business, to taking midnight calls to “walk them off the ledge” of anxiety, my job is to be present and accountable for founders and truly advocating for their success.

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