Houston's primed to lead space innovation into the future — it's already happening here, as one panel at SXSW explains. Image via axiomspace.com

For all of the time they've been on earth, humans have looked up and wondered what was out there. Now more than ever, as a recent panel of experts discussed, humans are equipped to find out.

“We actually have, for the very first time, not just the ability to answer those questions, but to be able to go and live among the stars,” says Douglas Terrier, associate director for vision and strategy at NASA's Johnson Space Center. “It’s really a phenomenal thing to think that we are existing at this time.”

Terrier was joined by fellow panelists Matt Ondler, CTO of Axiom Space, and Tim Crain, CTO of Intuitive Machines, along with moderator Arturo Machuca, director of Houston Spaceport, to explore what has contributed to this unique moment in time for space commercialization. The panel, which was presented by Houston Spaceport and hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, took place at Houston House at SXSW on Sunday, March 13.

An industry that was run exclusively by the government has evolved to include commercialization — and not just on a corporate level.

“We’re at this inflection point where access to space is easier — companies are emerging and it’s not just NASA and big companies like Boeing and Lockheed that can participate in space,” Ondler says.

This evolution was crucial to continue developing the technologies needed to advance the industry. Ondler's company Axiom Space is working on the first commercial space station for lower earth orbit, or LEO. This project will be 100 to 1,000 times less expensive than what it cost to build the International Space Station.

“We’re really leveraging so much history and so much of the government’s investment to build our commercial space station,” Ondler says.

The LEO economy is a trillion dollar economy — and one that has been overtaken by commercial companies, which is exactly what NASA needed to allow for it to refocus efforts to returning to the moon with its Artemis project.

“We’ve gotten over that first obstacle where we’ve commercialized operations of low earth orbit,” Terrier says. “That frees us up to look further.”

For decades, the aerospace industry has been responsible for churning out technologies that, in addition to their space application, can make a difference on earth as well.

“We spend a lot of money getting to space, but what it does is push forward all of these things we have to invent, and they find their ways into application in medicine, water purification, clean energy — all return tenfold value to our society," Terrier says on the panel.

Today, Terrier says the space economy is over $400 billion — and only a quarter of that is government investment. With this influx of companies working in space innovation, Houston has all it needs to be a leader in the field.

“Innovation and the ability to commercially engage in space requires a lot of ideas and new ways of looking of things,” Crain says, pointing out the area around the JSC and the spaceport. “The more opportunities we have for these ideas to come together and interchange, that is going to open up the capability to make commercialization successful.”

He continues saying the city is building a critical mass with space tech startups, talent within engineering and manufacturing, government support, and more.

“It’s more open now than it's ever been for both the city and for NASA to support companies who want to work in Houston,” Crain says. “When you put all those ingredients together the opportunities are really endless, and it’s the place to be.”

Airports, spaceports, and carports — these three Houston innovators represent the city's future. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's Houston innovators to keep an eye on are working on technologies that are true testaments to the day and age we live in. From commercial space travel to a product that protects vehicles from floodwaters that are more and more frequent, these entrepreneurs are providing solutions to problems no one even dreamed of having a few decades ago.

Mark Bergsrud, co-founder and CEO of Grab

Courtesy of Grab

For over 20 years, Mark Bergsrud worked at the intersection of travel and technology — first at Continental Airlines, then at United Airlines following the merger, and now for himself as the co-founder of Grab, a Houston startup that's making grabbing a bite at the airport way easier.

Grab's technology digitizes and optimizes the airport dining experience — from ordering pickup remotely ahead of time to kiosks or table tablet ordering. The company, which has operations in 37 airports, just closed a multimillion-dollar Series A fundraising round to help continue its growth.

"We've called ourselves a startup for a long time, and now we think of ourselves as more of a scale-up company," Bergsrud says. "Now it's about having the money to scale faster."

Read more about the company by clicking here.

Rahel Abraham, founder of ClimaGuard

Courtesy of ClimaGuard

For inventors, you can usually pinpoint a particular "eureka" moment. For Rahel Abraham, it was seeing her 2008 Infiniti G35 completely totaled by the rain waters of Hurricane Harvey. She knew there had to be some way to protect cars and valuables from flooding, so she invented ClimaGuard's Temporary Protective Enclosure.

Abraham, who was selected for the 12-week DivInc accelerator program in Austin for her company, wants to make the product available to everyone.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham says.

Read more about the company by clicking here.

Arturo Machuca, general manager of Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport

Arturo Machuca

Courtesy of the Houston Airport System

Arturo Machuca is playing a waiting game. Various companies are developing commercial spaceflight and — whether that technology delivers in two years or 10 years, Machuca wants Houston to be ready. Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport are being developed throughout a multiphase, multimillion-dollar process, while also serving as an active airport.

"We use what we already have at Ellington Airport," Machuca tells InnovationMap. "We're serving aviation today until commercial spaceflight gets here."

Read the full interview by clicking here.

Commercial space technology is being developed at this moment, and Arturo Machuca wants to make sure the Houston Spaceport is ready for the technology when it's finished. Courtesy of the Houston Airport System

Houston Spaceport general manager wants to connect the city to the rest of the world

Featured innovator

In 2015, Houston became the 10th licensed spaceport in the United States. Now, four years later, it's Arturo Machuca's job as general manager of the Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport to guide the institution from idea into reality.

Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport are co-located just 15 miles outside of downtown Houston and just north of the Johnson Space Center. While major players in commercial space exploration develop the technology for space travel, Machuca and his team at the Houston Airport Systems are working to build Houston's Spaceport to be ready for that technology when it arrives.

Machuca spoke with InnovationMap for the final installment of this month's space-focused interviews in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your career to date. 

Arturo Machuca: I am a very fortunate man in that I have had the chance to be involved in this project that's so relevant to the city of Houston. My background has been in aviation for 38 years. I've worked 21 years in commercial aviation. I've also worked in air service development, working with airlines to add new routes to and from Houston. I've worked in corporate aviation as well.

Now past 10 years since July 2009 been with the Houston Airport System. I was first based at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, then in 2012 I was fortunate enough to work with director Mario Diaz on the inception of the spaceport plans. In 2015, we became the 10th commercial spaceport in the nation.

It's been so much fun. It's so good to come to work where you get to say, "I'm having fun with this."

IM: With the Houston Spaceport being only the 10th licensed in the United States, has it been challenging laying the groundwork?

AM: There has been some challenges in that we are adapting our infrastructure to serve as the commercial space, including very in depth due diligence. But at the same time, it's been easy because of the fact that we are distinguished amongst other spaceports. We are the only truly urban spaceport in the world, which makes it easier from my perspective. Plus, we are the home to Johnson Space Center and a number of space companies based here. While challenging, it's been very good to have those things on our side.

IM: What’s the big picture goal of the Houston Spaceport?

AM: Our goal will be to one day connect Houston to the world by commercial spaceflight. Companies like Virgin Galactic are developing their technology for point-to-point transportation, or space flight. We have no control over that — it's up to them. In the meantime, we continue to take advantage of existing structure and turning it into the spaceport. We use what we already have at Ellington Airport. We're serving aviation today until commercial spaceflight gets here.

IM: The Spaceport just broke ground on Phase I of the transformation. What are the priorities for that initiative?

AM: We have nearly 1,000 acres of land that we can develop. Our vision is to create a cluster of aerospace and aviation companies that allow for us to get to space in a quicker fashion. We have chosen four major areas of development to focus on phase one of the spaceport: drones, micro satellites, aviation and commercial spaceflight, and data and analytics. We're building the neighborhood, if you will, so that companies can come and set up on our land.

We've been working with universities, and about a month ago we just announced the Edge workforce training center where San Jacinto College will train students to support the industry.

IM: The spaceport has quite a few educational partners. Why has that been such a core component to the project?

AM: About 2.5 years ago we were working with a proposal to work with Blue Origin — a company owned by Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon. Blue Origin was looking for a location to build their rocket engine, and we thought the Houston Spaceport was the perfect place. The process took a little over a year, and I am proud to say that we made it to the final two cities. We were competing with Huntsville, Alabama, which is known as Rocket City. We didn't win, but when we went back and asked for feedback, they said that Huntsville offered a tremendous amount of educational support. We clearly realized that it's important to have that direct connection.

IM: What’s Houston’s future role in space?

AM: I think that Houston is poised for success because of the existing components we already have in place, like the Johnson Space Center. The city of Houston is working very closely with the JSC to make sure we remain mission relevant.

Pushing into commercial space flight, I believe that Houston is poised for a tremendous future. We are learning to better coordinate with the players on the government side and the private industry. I envision Houston becoming even a stronger player in the next 50 years because of the development and the growth of assets. I can see us serving as a city where we take passengers from one end of the world to the others using commercial space flight.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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TMC names inaugural cohort for unique accelerator with UK

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Sixteen digital health and medical device startups founded in the United Kingdom have been selected for a customized accelerator at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory.

In partnership with Innovate UK, TMCi created the Innovate UK Global Incubator Programme, a new accelerator that supports UK businesses as they build their United States go-to-market plan. The program builds the BioBridge relationship between TMC and the UK that was originally established five years ago.

“The TMC UK BioBridge program was launched with the UK Department for Business and Trade in 2018 to serve as a gateway for advancing life sciences and foster innovation and research between our two countries," says Ashley McPhail, chief external affairs and administration officer for TMC, in a news release. "We saw an opportunity to work with Innovate UK to develop a larger program with the UK after the success of the 11 companies that previously participated in our health tech accelerator."

The 16 companies will participate in the program from June to November. The cohort is expected to arrive in Houston on June 5 and have access to TMCi's facilities, network of mentors and potential clients, funding, potential customers, and curated programing — all while being a unique entry point into the US. The new offering joins three other globally recognized curriculums: Biodesign, Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics, and Health Tech.

“TMCi nurtures long-term growth, development, and competitiveness to increase startups chances of success and global expansion," says Emily Reiser, associate director of TMC Innovation. "By bringing their novel technologies and exposing them to a curated selection of TMC’s expert network, startups receive support and evaluation to build, scale, and expand in the US market."

Two of the cohort's specialties include cardiovascular and oncology — two of TMC's strongest areas of expertise — with solutions ranging from surgical devices to AI-enabled risk stratification and hospital efficiency.

Innovate UK is the country's national innovation agency dedicated to supporting business-led innovation in all sectors.

“The United Kingdom is fully committed to improving global healthcare through scientific collaboration," says His Majesty’s Consul General in Texas Richard Hyde in the release. "Through the expansion of the TMC UK BioBridge and in partnership with Innovate UK, this programme will help to expose the brightest and best British companies to the world’s largest medical city. Our companies will collaborate and grow as they work to develop cutting edge technology. The partnership between the UK Government and TMC demonstrates that international collaboration can drive both economic growth and improvement to quality of life.”

The 16 companies making up the inaugural cohort are as follows, according to TMC.

  • AINOSTICS aims to revolutionize the treatment and prevention of neurological conditions, such as dementia, by developing innovative AI-enabled solutions that draw novel insights from routinely acquired non-invasive medical scans to deliver accurate diagnosis and outcome prediction, and in turn facilitate personalized care and timely access to disease-modifying treatments for patients.
  • Alvie is a blended human plus AI-enabled digital solution providing personalised pre and rehabilitation coaching and supportive care for cancer and surgery. Alvie's technology combines data profiling, risk-stratification and tailored prescriptions of health and well-being with curated educational content, targeted behaviour change coaching and expert support through chat messaging and virtual consultations.
  • C the Signs™ is a validated AI cancer prediction platform, which can identify patients at risk of cancer at the earliest and most curable stage of the disease. Used by healthcare professionals, C the Signs can identify which tumor type a patient is at risk of and recommend the most appropriate next step in less than 30 seconds. The platform has detected over 10,000 patients with cancer, with over 50 different types of cancer diagnosed, and with a sensitivity of >98% for cancer.
  • At PEP Health, We believe all patients deserve the best care possible. Our cutting-edge machine-learning technology enables healthcare organisations, regulators, and insurers the real-time, actionable insights they need to have a direct and dramatic impact on patient experiences.
  • PreciousMD improves the lives of lung-cancer and other lung-related illnesses patients worldwide by enabling imaging-based diagnostics needed for personalized treatment pathways.
  • Ufonia is an autonomous telemedicine company, we use large language models and voice AI to increase the capacity of clinical professionals.
  • My mhealth offers digital therapeutics for a range of long-term conditions- COPD, Asthma, Diabetes and Heart Disease. Our product has been successfully deployed in the UK and India, with >100,000 users registered to date. Our solutions empower patients to self-manage their conditions, resulting in dramatic improvements in outcomes, as evidenced through multiple clinical trials and real-world evaluations.
  • At Surgery Hero, we offer a clinically backed solution that ensures whole-human support before and after surgery. We help health systems, employers and health plans cut costs without sacrificing quality of care.
  • Panakeia's software platform enables extremely rapid multi-omics profiling in minutes directly from routinely used tissue images without needing wet lab assays.
  • QV Bioelectronics are striving to deliver longer, better quality lives for brain tumour patients. Using their first-of-its-kind implantable electric field therapy device, GRACE, QV will provide effective, focal & continuous treatment without impacting patient quality of life.
  • 52 North is a med-tech company focused on improving health outcomes and health equity by reinventing care pathways. The NeutroCheck® solution is a finger-prick blood test and digital platform built to significantly improve safety and quality of life for cancer patients, by helping to identify at-home those patients who are at risk of the most fatal side-effect of chemotherapy: neutropenic sepsis.
  • Somnus is fulfilling an unmet need in global healthcare by developing real-time, point of care blood propofol monitoring. Its products will improve the care of sedated and anaesthetised patients, save money for hospitals, and facilitate a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • ScubaTx is a breakthrough organ transplant preservation company established to solve the global unmet need for cost-efficient and longer-duration organ preservation technology. ScubaTx has developed a simple, small and affordable device which uses Persufflation to extend the preservation of organs.
  • IBEX is on a mission to help people live active, healthy and productive lives by increasing their access to early diagnosis of osteoporosis. The IBEX BH software as medical device delvers routine, automated assessment of fracture risk from routine radiology for earlier detection and more equitable treatment of osteoporosis.
  • NuVision produces products derived from donated human amniotic membrane that are used in ophthalmology to help patients with chronic, traumatic and post-surgical wounds of the eye to be treated earlier and recover more fully and more quickly. The company’s products are also used in the management of dry eye disease, a debilitating conditions that affects around 17m people in the USA.
  • Calon Cardio-Technology is on a mission to improve quality of life for patients with Left Ventricular Assist devices (LVAD) and reduce the common post operative complications associated with these implantable heart pumps. We plan to do this by introducing a completely wireless heart pump system and augment patient follow-up with built-in remote monitoring capabilities.

UH lab using mixed reality to optimize designs for the Moon and Mars

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University of Houston researchers and students are bringing multiple realities together to help improve the design process for crewed space missions.

Helmed by Vittorio Netti, a researcher for UH and a space architect, the university has launched an XR Lab within the University of Houston architecture building. The lab allows researchers to combine mixed reality (MR), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) to "blend the physical and digital worlds" to give designers a better understanding of life in space, according to a release from UH.

In the lab researchers can wear MY space suits and goggles, take a VR space walk, or feel what it's like to float to the International Space Station with the help of XR and a crane.

The area in which the researchers conduct this work is known as the "cage" and was developed during a six-month research and design study of lunar surface architecture sponsored by Boeing, which aimed to learn more about the design of a lunar terrain vehicle and a small lunar habitat.

The work is part of UH's Sasakawa International Center of Space Architecture (SICSA), which is led by Olga Bannova, a research associate professor and director of the space architecture graduate program at UH.

She says work like this will drastically cut down research and development time when designing space structures.

“These technologies should be harnessed to mitigate the dependency on physical prototyping of assets and help optimize the design process, drastically reducing research-and-development time and providing a higher level of immersion,” Bannova said in a statement.

Today the research team is shifting its focus on designing for a Mars landing. In the future, they aim to demonstrate and test the system for habitats designed for both lunar and Martian surfaces. They are also working with Boeing to test designs in microgravity, or zero gravity, which exists inside the International Space Station.

Mixed Reality Raising the Bar for Space Architecture on the Moon and MarsStep into this 'Cage' at the University of Houston where physical and digital worlds are merged, allowing students to see and ...