HTX Labs will supply immersive training technology and content to the Air Force and its Space Force military partner. Graphic courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs has won a three-year, $90 million contract to provide immersive training capabilities for the Air Force and Space Force.

Under the new contract, which is set to end in September 2026, HTX Labs will supply immersive training technology and content to the Air Force and its Space Force military partner. The Houston company says the contract culminates more than five years of collaboration with the Air Force.

HTX Labs’ EMPACT cloud-based immersive training platform enables instructors and curriculum developers to create immersive lessons within EMPACT’s digital classrooms. HTX Labs says the Air Force and Space Force will retain full ownership of digital assets that are produced and will allow in-house updates of training materials.

EMPACT’s training lessons can be consumed on tablets, laptops, and virtual reality (VR) headsets.

“HTX Labs is honored to have the confidence of the Air Force per this contract that allows us to continue our collaboration with Airmen and Guardians to deliver immersive training capabilities for the warfighter,” Scott Schneider, CEO and head of growth for HTX Labs, says in a news release.

The ties between HTX Labs and the Air Force are strong.

In May, HTX Labs said it had been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract for the Tech Training Transformation Cloud project at the Air Force. The project will let airmen access, create, share, and deliver government-owned digital assets, models, simulations, and content for technical training.

Two months later, HTX Labs said retired Air Force Gen. Craig “Pulse” Wills had joined the company as a strategic adviser. During his Air Force tenure, Wills oversaw a makeover of flight training, including the introduction of extended reality (XR) training and adult learning programs.

“HTX Labs was one of the early pioneers of our Pilot Training Next effort, and they’re dedicated to meeting the needs of our warfighters,” says Wills. “Our young military members are the treasure of this nation. We owe them the very best training and tools available to make them lethal, proficient, and prepared to defend this nation and our way of life.”

Founded in 2017, HTX Labs received $3.2 million in royalty-based equity funding last year from Dallas-based Cypress Growth Capital.

Ody De La Paz, CEO and founder of Sensytec, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of his company as it gears up for growth. Photo courtesy of Sensytec

Houston innovator gears up for influx of infrastructure building

houston innovators podcast episode 128

There are a lot of moving parts within a construction project — and so many opportunities for things to go wrong. Just within the concrete pouring process, there are a lot of variables to consider — and one Houston startup's technology is able to provide contractors crucial information in real time.

Sensytec's remote monitoring devices can analyze concrete's structural integrity as its being cured, and that data — the temperature of the concrete or soil, its compressive strength and quality, and more — is provided to users so that they can make decisions in the moment.

"At the end of the day, it boils down to time and money for the contractors," Ody De La Paz, co-founder and CEO of Sensytec, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "If I'm able to save them two days per pour on the project, that could equate to thousands of dollars a day of savings — just by understanding the compressive strength of concrete now."

Not only is this a cost-saving tool, the technology building more structurally sound buildings that will last longer and better withstand environmental impacts, such as flooding, extreme temperatures, and more.

The importance of creating longer lasting infrastructure is topical, De La Paz says, and the United States government has taken notice. Through participation in AFWERX — the innovation arm of the Air Force, Sensytec was tapped by the military to use the technology across operations.

"The plan is to integrate our system and analytics from sensors into a multi-platform system that the Air Force is trying to roll out in all of the military bases," De La Paz says. "We're trying to be that center hub for concrete and soil monitoring for them."

With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $65 billion is being deployed to build or improve infrastructure — among other tech and transportation improvements — and a lot of that funding is coming to the Lone Star State.

"Texas is actually one of the main states that's getting a lot of that funding, so we're going to be seeing a lot more construction coming up," he says.

For Sensytec, the pandemic also has created new opportunities for business expansion and customer growth. Contractors and construction companies are looking to make sustainable changes — and are ready to invest the time and money needed to implement the technology.

"The culture is changing a bit. It's not necessarily about being able to do something the next day," De La Paz says, "it's really about thinking long term for the next generation."

De La Paz shares more about the future of Sensytec, including how the company will raise funding to support its growth, on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Scott Schneider of HTX Labs joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how his VR software is helping to train Department of Defense pilots. Photo via htxlabs.com

Houston software startup is tapping into the military sector with VR training tools

Houston innovators podcast episode 127

For years, the idea of virtual and augmented reality has been growing in use and popularity from a consumer perspective. VR art experiences are popping up in every major city, and Snapchat and Instagram filters are flooding our phone screens daily. But one Houston company had the foresight to tap this tech in the business world.

"Our real mission around HTX Labs was to take what we felt was amazing technology — virtual reality, augmented reality, extended reality, and immersive technology in general — and take it from a primary consumer focus into enterprise," Scott Schneider says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

A VR headset is different from your usual office appliance — it's not a printer or a desktop computer. So, addressing this technology and how companies deal with network security and identity management — plus the software designing itself — has been HTX Labs' bread and butter since it was founded in 2017.

"It's always been around how do we elevate training — and that's really been our mission for the past five years," Schneider says.

Over the years, the startup has had the opportunity to enter a new sector, and it's represented a pretty big pivot for the company. Now, 95 percent of HTX Labs's focus is on the Department of Defense.

"Around 2018, we were approached by the U.S. Air Force," Schneider says. "Three and a half years later, we are fully engaged with the DoD – Air Force, Navy, Army. Our big focus is around training aircraft pilots and maintainers — if you fly them or you fix them, they are using our technology."

HTX Labs has tripled its team over the past few years, and is looking to hire another 20 people to support its growth — specifically looking for sales, business development, and operational positions.

"In 2021, we were all about building capability and building our platform," Schneider says, "and 2022 is all about adoption. It's a land grab out there for doing what we're doing. We're trying to drive adoption within the government and outside in the commercial and private sector."

Schneider shares more on what he's focused on this year and how HTX Labs has grown alongside the Houston innovation ecosystem on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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."

Dyan Gibbens translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Houston drone company has big business on the horizon

The sky's the limit

Dyan Gibbens found her dream career. She studied engineering, learned to fly at the United States Air Force Academy, went into pilot training, and served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles. She even went on to support Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. She dedicated five years to active service before transitioning to the reserves.

"When I went to transition, I learned I was permanently disqualified from ever serving again," Gibbens said. "It was devastating to me, because all I've ever wanted to do was serve."

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy,"

InnovationMap: What exactly does Trumbull Unmanned do?

Dyan Gibbens: We fly drones in challenging and austere environments to collect and analyze data for the energy sector. We fly across upstream, midstream, and downstream either on or off shore. We focus on three areas: digital transformation, inspection and operations, and technology development and integration.

The types data we collect and analyze could be LiDAR — light detection and ranging — to multispectral — to see the help of different properties — to visible — to perform tech-enabled inspections. We've recently hired inspectors in house as well. On LiDAR, we just hired a subject matter expert.

IM: So, the company is growing. What else is new for Trumbull?

DG: We just signed a few five-year agreements with supermajors. We're excited about that and the new hires. We're starting to do more on communications and situational awareness. We're doing more in energy and now in the government.

IM: What were some early challenges you faced?

DG: We are 100 percent organically funded — from our savings and from client contracts. Our first client was ExxonMobil. Our second client was Chevron. We had to prove ourselves over and over. We had to work hard to earn and then maintain that business. For us, it was also adjusting to a fluctuation in cash flow. It was going from a steady job to betting on yourself, and we didn't know anyone in Houston.

IM: What's the state of drone technology in the field?

DG: We've continued to see a hybrid approach toward services. Meaning, there's an in-house component and outsourced component. On the outsourced component, we intend to provide that for our clients. On the in-house component, while we don't train the masses, we do train our clients on request. We've promoted that model from the beginning. We think it makes sense that they are trained to do something simple, like take a picture, but for some of the more difficult projects, they outsource to us.

We're going to continue to see increased autonomy. There are really some amazing things already in autonomy, but there's still a lot of challenges flying in dense environments such as refineries and plants.

IM: How is Houston's startup scenes for veterans? What resources are out there?

DG: The way I see it is veterans have made a commitment to serve us, so we should make a commitment to serve them. That's my philosophy. Large companies have different programs, which is great, and there are entities such as Combined Arms, which has full services for transitioning veterans where you can go in and one-stop shop to get support from everything like getting connected to the VA to help working through PTSD to getting help transitioning to business. There are also really good Service Academy networks. More and more opportunities exist to step up to serve veterans.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.