Houston-based Venus Aerospace has raised $20 million — and is one step closer to providing one-hour global travel. Photo courtesy of Venus Aerospace

A year after raising $3 million in seed funding, a Space City startup has closed its high-flying series A round to the tune of $20 million.

Venus Aerospace, which is working on a zero-carbon emission spaceplane that will enable one-hour global travel, closed its series A funding round led by Wyoming-based Prime Movers Lab. The firm has a few dozen breakthrough scientific companies in its portfolio, including another Houston-based, space-focused startup, Axiom Space. The round also saw participation from previous investors: Draper Associates, Boost, Saturn 5, Seraph Group, Cantos, The Helm & Tamarack Global.

Venus Aerospace was founded by Sarah "Sassie" and Andrew Duggleby, who serve as the company's CEO and CTO, respectively, in 2020 in California. The Texas A&M University alumni later moved the business into its current facilities in the Houston Spaceport.

"The U.S. is in the middle of a global race for hypersonic technology, and the breakthroughs being developed by Sassie, Andrew, and their team have numerous civilian and defense applications," says Prime Movers Lab General Partner Brandon Simmons in a news release. "Venus hit critical engine tests, vehicle design, and growth milestones that make me tremendously excited about the future of American hypersonic flight."

According to the release, the company will use the fresh funding on enhancing its three main technologies: a next-generation rocket engine, aircraft shape, and leading-edge cooling system, which allows for the Venus spaceplane to take off from existing spaceports.

"These recent advances in technology finally enable a spaceplane, a vehicle long imagined, but only now possible," says Andrew Duggleby in the release. "We will use this round of funding to get into flight testing and engine testing at Spaceport Houston. Bringing this technology forward into systems, drones and ultimately spaceplanes, it will take both new space veterans and bright new minds to solve. We've gone from impossible to hard, and this investment will allow us to knock down the next few steps."

The past year has represented significant growth for Venus, with developing contracts with the government and building out the company's team — and the company still has eight positions listed on its website. After building out and testing its technology, Venus also started a ground test campaign at Spaceport Houston.

"We are excited to continue our partnership with Prime Movers Lab and our other great investors. In the past year, with our initial funding, we have scaled from 3 people to 40. These are the world's best rocket scientists, engineers, and operators," says Sassie Duggleby in the release. "With this funding, we will continue to push forward toward our next technical milestones, hire great people, and scale our organization. We are excited to continue engineering the future of high-speed aviation."

These five space tech stories were among the most read of 2021. Photo via NASA.gov

These are Houston's top space innovation stories of the year

2021 in review

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the space innovation and technology — from commercial space exploration to space tech and research funding — in Houston, five stories trended among readers.

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. Click here to read the full article.

Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

You've heard "it's not rocket science" throughout your life, but but turns out that aerospace exploration — even in 2021 — is still very hard. Photo via Pexels

If there is anything that goes hand in hand so perfectly, it's Houston and Space. Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and is home to revolutionary space research projects and spaceflight training for both crew members and flight controllers. While it's every kid's dream to become an astronaut, have you ever wondered why rocket science is actually so difficult?

Though the space race of the '70s has been over for some time, the new space race — the race to Mars and the commercialization of space tourism — has just started. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are spearheading the "Billionaire space race." But even with their billions being put into developing spaceports, NASA rocket partnerships, and planning future Mars missions, rocket science is just as difficult to implement as it was the first time around.

So why, even with billions of dollars at their disposal and many companies pushing for more funding, are scientists and engineers still struggling to make rocket travel an everyday thing? Here are some of the countless reasons why rockets science is insanely difficult, no matter how much money you throw at it. Click here to read the full article.

Fresh funds: 2 Houston organizations dole grants to advance research

Here's what researchers raked in the cash to support their research. Photo via Getty Images

Funding fuels the research that supports the innovations of tomorrow. Two Houston-based scientific organizations announced funding recipients that are working on advancing research in space health and chemistry.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has announced almost $4 million in grants to four research teams. As more and more plans to launch humans into space continue to develop, TRISH is working to support research addressing human health in space. Click here to read the full article.

Space-focused fund with HQ in Houston rockets toward $20M goal

SpaceFund, based in Houston and Austin, has almost reached halfway for its $20 million fundraise. Photo via NASA/Unsplash

A venture capital firm co-located in Houston and Austin has announced a recent closing of a $20 million fund.

SpaceFund has raised $9 million toward its its $20 million BlastOff Fund as of this week — surpassing its initial first close goal of $5 million.

"We are thrilled to see how many investors are placing their trust in our team," says SpaceFund founder Rick Tumlinson in a news release. "We spent a lot of time slowly and carefully developing our processes and credibility, so we can better serve both investors and the amazing space startup community, and it's paying off."

Launched in 2019 with an initial fund that closed in August of 2020, SpaceFund has already invested in 13 exciting space startups. The new fund will build on those investments while also expanding its portfolio, according to the release.

"SpaceFund is about combining a bold approach with a very conservative diligence and investment process," says Meagan Crawford, SpaceFund's managing partner, in the release. "The BlastOff Fund continues our careful growth plan but is designed to accelerate our ability to place investment into those companies that are leading the Space Revolution." Click here to read the full article.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises has named four companies to its first cohort. Photo courtesy of The Ion

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space." Click here to read the full article.

You've heard "it's not rocket science" throughout your life, but but turns out that aerospace exploration — even in 2021 — is still very hard. Photo via Pexels

Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

guest column

If there is anything that goes hand in hand so perfectly, it's Houston and Space. Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and is home to revolutionary space research projects and spaceflight training for both crew members and flight controllers. While it's every kid's dream to become an astronaut, have you ever wondered why rocket science is actually so difficult?

Though the space race of the '70s has been over for some time, the new space race — the race to Mars and the commercialization of space tourism — has just started. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are spearheading the "Billionaire space race." But even with their billions being put into developing spaceports, NASA rocket partnerships, and planning future Mars missions, rocket science is just as difficult to implement as it was the first time around.

So why, even with billions of dollars at their disposal and many companies pushing for more funding, are scientists and engineers still struggling to make rocket travel an everyday thing? Here are some of the countless reasons why rockets science is insanely difficult, no matter how much money you throw at it.

Small talent pool

The Apollo astronauts were the best of the best — and the hundreds of thousands of engineers and rocket scientists behind the scenes were just as talented. But getting to the point in one's career where you have the right background experience and the right hands-on work and real-life experience to create a safe rocket is difficult. The talent pool that SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin are working with is extremely small and notoriously competitive. As these programs continue to build in credibility, it may be easier to find talent, but few engineers want to be tied to a failed launch.

The risk of failure

Usually, when you fail at something like a math test or a driver's exam, the ramifications aren't too big. But with space travel, a small problem can quickly turn into a deadly situation for those on board the rocket. Think back to the Challenger explosion in 1986. The success of previous missions (not to mention the administrative corner-cutting) led to a false sense of security when in reality they were still embarking on the insanely difficult feat of launching humans into space. The risk of failure is so great, many commercial manufacturers are cautious to put their weight behind an operation that could in all likelihood come crashing back down to Earth.

Rocket construction

Think back to when you were in school learning about Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's a simple idea, but complex in reality. That law of motion forms the basis for rocket science: the combustion of rocket fuel down into the earth is one action, so the opposite reaction causes the rocket to launch upward into space. But the engineering that's needed for a launch to take place is the hard part.

As mentioned in a 2012 NPR article, there are millions of pieces in every rocket, and "therefore millions of opportunities to make errors — to make errors in calculations, to make errors in construction." The devastating Challenger mission failure is often attributed to faulty O-rings — it's a simple piece of equipment and can often be overlooked.

Even after hundreds of successful launches over the years, rocket construction is just as complex, and the process of shooting humans into space cannot be distilled to a law of motion when there is so much more involved to make that process happen.

Public perception

Throughout the '70s, Americans were enthralled by the idea of the space race and becoming the first country to set foot on the moon. But the public's passion died down after that initial landing. Today, the public perception of current space projects is making doing the actual rocket science and engineering difficult.


Objections against NASA's waste of taxpayer money on "futile" missions and the idea that space travel will only be for the mega-wealthy make any conversation around actual scientific discovery second to politics. Not to even mention the newly minted Space Force. Engineers and scientists have to navigate a hoard of political, financial, and PR battles to even get to do the work of getting people back into space.

The bottom line

Rocket science is thought of as one of the most difficult fields for a reason. Building a piece of technology capable of going into space and even housing people inside is a relatively new feat when considering the span of time. As the billionaire space race continues to unfold, scientists and engineers behind the scenes are creating feats of engineering on a regular basis that will shape the future of space travel. But, if you want to just get a taste of space life, without all the schooling, then a trip to the Johnson Space Center is for you.

------

Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

Catch up on space news — from new partnerships at Rice University and the latest snub for the Space City. Photo via NASA.gov

Space City News: Houston passed over for military HQ, Rice forms new partnerships

aerospace updates

It's been a busy few days for space news, and in Houston — the Space City — it's all relevant to the continued conversation of technology and innovation.

With so much going on — from Houston being passed over for the Space Command's headquarters and Rice receiving $1.4 million in federal funds for a new hub — here's what you may have missed in space news.

The Ion awarded $1.4M to launch Aerospace Innovation Hub

The Ion will be home to the Aerospace Innovation Hub, thanks to a federal grant. Courtesy of Rice University

Through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center and DivInc, The Ion has been awarded $1.4 million in federal funding to create its Aerospace Innovation Hub. The ASCI-Hub will support and develop regional minority business enterprises addressing aerospace-related challenges.

"Landing this award is another win for the region that leverages the unique strengths of the crewed space program at NASA JSC," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, says in a news release. "As Houston was critical to landing men on the moon in the late-'60s, the Ion's Aerospace Innovation Hub will be key not only to advancing the future of spaceflight, including the mission to Mars in the future, but also to tackling challenges facing our everyday lives here on Earth."

The hub will provide NASA's expertise and resources across robotics, medicine, health support systems, additive manufacturing, and more — as well as community events, education and training, and an accelerator program.

"We're eager to partner with the MDBA, Rice University and the Ion to help develop and grow minority entrepreneurs and accelerate innovative and tech-forward solutions in Houston," says Vanessa Wyche, deputy director of the JSC, in the release. "This partnership builds toward NASA's goals to enhance scientific and technological knowledge to benefit all of humankind and catalyze economic growth, as we propel commercialization of space and extend our presence in the solar system."

Opening in 2021, the Ion announced $1.5 million in grant funds in September. Those funds are going toward accelerators, which will collaborate with the Aerospace Innovation Hub.

"While we have taken many small — and valuable — steps over the past few years, this is one giant leap forward for our efforts to promote sustainable inclusion in Houston's entrepreneurial and technological ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at the Ion, in the release.

The Air Force announces 6 potential sites for Space Force base — and Houston misses the mark

Houston will not be considered for the Space Command HQ — but Texas isn't completely out of the running. U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez

The United States Department of the Air Force announced the six candidate locations for the U.S. Space Command Headquarters — and Houston didn't make the cut.

The six locations include:

  • Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico
  • Offutt AFB in Nebraska
  • Patrick AFB in Florida
  • Peterson AFB in Colorado (where temporary operations are located)
  • Port San Antonio in Texas
  • Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama

The Air Force evaluated self-nominated cities from across 24 states based on factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense, according to a press release. U.S. Space Command Headquarters location announcement is expected in early 2021.

"We are disappointed that Houston is not among the finalist locations for the U.S. Space Command," Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. "We believe we put together a strong case for why Houston should be chosen. We will continue to work with the U.S. Air Force and other branches of the military on future opportunities and we will remain vigilant in our pursuit of aerospace industry opportunities for this region."

Rice Space Institute to collaborate with Canada

The Rice Space Institute has a new partner is Canada. Photo courtesy of NASA

Rice University's Rice Space Institute has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Consulate General of Canada in Dallas to collaborate on space science and technology.

The parties made the collaboration official at a virtual event on November 20. RSI Director David Alexander OBE, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy, says the partnership is key to the continued commercialization of space exploration.

"What's different about this agreement is that with the rapid growth of commercial space worldwide and the strength of the aerospace industry in Houston, it presents a new pathway for potential interactions between Canadian science and industry and commercial entities not just in the Houston region but around the world," he says in a news release. "It's a nice, complementary aspect to our connection with NASA."

The United States has collaborated with Canada on space exploration for decades, and Canada's government is committed to advancing space technology.

"This MOU with the Rice Space Institute comes at an exciting time in human space exploration," says Rachel McCormick, the Consul General of Canada in Dallas and Canada's official representative in the U.S. South Central region, in the release. "In 2019, the Government of Canada announced an investment of $1.9 billion over 24 years for the next generation of smart, AI-powered space robotics for the U.S.-led Lunar Gateway program.

"We are also providing $150 million over five years for the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program," she continues. "LEAP will fund the development and demonstration of lunar science and technologies in fields that include AI, robotics and health."

Eric Ingram and Sergio Gallucci of SCOUT are focused on creating data-driven solutions to space technology management to save companies billions and prevent space debris. Photos courtesy of SCOUT

Tech startup lands in Houston to help space support services take off

space tech

A Virginia-based space company startup focusing on developing small and inexpensive satellites is making an out-of-this-world entrance in the Houston commercial innovation space.

SCOUT has been selected as part of the 2020 MassChallange's Texas in Houston cohort, a zero-equity startup accelerator, in the commercial space track and is planning a demonstration mission with the Johnson Space Center in 2021.

The startup, founded in 2019 by Eric Ingram and joined shortly after by Sergio Gallucci. Both have years of experience in innovative research and development, leading teams across academia, government, and industry. Their data will help manufacturers and operators extend satellite lifetimes, avoid failing satellites, reducing up to a billion dollars in losses.

"If we want further operate in space and grow our space presence overall," Eric Ingram, CEO-and-founder tells InnovationMap. "We need to have a safe environment to expand that presence so any time you have unchecked failures and space debris is a problem. We want to help take some of the riskiness out of space operations by providing data that doesn't already exist."

SCOUT provides a wide array of new products based on data to produce small and inexpensive satellites to perform in-space inspections of large and expensive satellites. Their data and spaceflight autonomy software helps spacecraft detect, identify, and refine models for observed objects to gather information and enable autonomous operations.

The space startup's observation and comprehension capabilities creates data products for customers, such as Spacecraft Sensor Suites and Satellite Inspections. The former is a sensor suite under current development to enable a new way to monitor satellites in space while the latter consists of their small satellites that can enable on-demand and on-site inspections for space assets.

This, according to Ingram, is changing the paradigm of operational risk in space.

"If we are able to better understand how these satellites age over time and diagnose problems before they become catastrophic failures," says Ingram "We can prevent space debris from even happening. The more safety and responsibility in space, the better it is for everyone to increase their technology and investment in what is a very rapidly growing industry."

Lost satellites tend to happen often, resulting in about $300 million lost in hardware and around $40 million annual revenue gone. Spacecrafts in outer space can be part of many unpredictable interactions that can be difficult to trace including solar activity, thermal, mechanical wear, and outgassing.

SCOUT will focus the rest of the year in growing their company, despite the setbacks caused by the coronavirus. Their priority is to meet their fundraising and technical milestones while engaging in strategic partnerships with satellite industry players.

"The space industry is growing and is becoming a more realistic and viable avenue for business growth and investment," says Ingram. "Houston is a diverse city with innovation at every front and the effort that NASA is going through to aid the commercial space industry, combined with the startup accelerators that there is a lot of adjacent opportunities and overlap in capabilities."

Boeing has started making plastic face shields at its San Antonio factory. Photo courtesy of Boeing

Aerospace giant taps Texas site to make face shields for health care workers battling the coronavirus

in need of PPE

Chicago-based Boeing, which is a major employer in Texas, began producing face shields for front-line healthcare workers at several of its facilities across the country. The company's San Antonio location is among the sites selected.

On April 10, Boeing delivered its first 2,300 face shields to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, which is an alternate treatment site for COVID-19 patients. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services accepted the shipment.

In collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Boeing is donating face shields to health care providers around the country. The company plans to make thousands of these face shields each week in San Antonio; St. Louis; Southern California; the Seattle area; Mesa, Arizona; Huntsville, Alabama; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; Salt Lake City; and Portland, Oregon.

"Boeing is proud to stand alongside many other great American companies in the fight against COVID-19, and we are dedicated to supporting our local communities, especially our front-line health care professionals, during this unprecedented time," David Calhoun, president and CEO of Boeing, says in a release.

At Port San Antonio, Boeing operates one of the world's largest military aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul facilities. In August 2019, Boeing said it was adding 500 jobs in San Antonio, on top of the 900 people already employed there.

Solvay, a longtime Boeing supplier, has provided clear film for the face shields. Another supplier, Trelleborg Sealing Solutions, has donated elastic for the adjustable headbands.

To date, Boeing says it has donated tens of thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment — including face masks, goggles, gloves, safety glasses, and protective bodysuits — to support U.S. health care workers fighting the pandemic.

"History has proven that Boeing is a company that rises to the toughest challenges with people who are second to none," Calhoun adds. "Today, we continue that tradition, and we stand ready to assist the federal government's response to this global pandemic."

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.