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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Houston health tech startup secures $27M in financing

money moves

A virtual health care and analytics provider startup has closed its latest round of funding for a total of $27 million in financing.

Medical Informatics Corp. closed a $17 million series B co-led by Maryland-based Catalio Capital Management and California-based Intel Capital. The financing also includes an additional $10 million in debt led by Catalio through Catalio’s structured equity strategy, according to a news release.

“We are excited to have had this round co-led by Catalio and Intel Capital," says Emma Fauss, CEO and co-founder of MIC, in the release. "Catalio brings significant financial and technical resources, while Intel Capital possesses strong operational and industry experience, and we look forward to continuing to leverage both firms’ expertise as we continue to scale.”

MIC created an FDA-cleared virtual care platform, called Sickbay, that gives health care providers and hospitals away to remotely monitor patients in any setting with vendor-neutral real-time medical device integration, workflow automation and standardization.

“We have seen an increased demand for our solution as our clients face significant staffing challenges and are looking for ways to amplify and empower their workforce," Fauss says in the release. "Some of the largest health care systems in the country are standardizing their infrastructure on our Sickbay platform while consolidating IT spend."

Other participants in the round included new investors TGH Innoventures, Tampa General Hospital’s innovation center and venture fund, and Austin-based Notley — as well as existing investors San Francisco-based DCVC, the Texas Medical Center, and nCourage, a Houston-based investment group.

As a part of the round, two individuals from Catalio will join the board at MIC. Jonathan Blankfein, principal at Catalio will join the board of directors, Diamantis Xylas, head of research at Catalio, will join as board observer.

“Health care systems’ need for high-caliber, cost-saving, data-driven technology is only going to increase, and MIC’s proprietary platform is perfectly positioned to address some of the most critical clinical challenges that health care organizations face,” says Blankfein in the release. “We look forward to continuing to support MIC’s strong team as it continues to deliver better outcomes for health care organizations and patients alike.”

Amid the pandemic and the rising need for remote care technology, MIC scaled rapidly in the past two years. The company will use the funding to continue fueling its growth, including hiring specialized talent — deep product specialists and client engagement teams — to support long-term strategic partnerships.

“One of the main barriers to advanced analytics in health care is the siloing of data and today there is a significant need for a platform to enable flexible, centralized and remote monitoring at scale and on demand,” says Mark Rostick, vice president and senior managing director at Intel Capital, in the release. “Medical Informatics is setting a new standard of health care by removing these data silos for health care providers of all sizes and transforming the way patients are monitored from hospital to home with real-time AI.”

Innovation pioneers on why Pumps & Pipes is so uniquely Houston

A Day of Discussion

Pumps & Pipes 2022, Houston’s premier innovation event, is rapidly approaching on December 5 from 8 am-3 pm at the Ion.

Leading up to this exciting event, InnovationMap spoke with several of the speakers representing various industries to ask them, "What makes Pumps & Pipes uniquely Houston?"

Here are their responses:

Dr. Alan Lumsden, chair of cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist and Pumps & Pipes founder:

“…What can we learn from one another? What is inside the other person’s toolkit? A lot of solutions are already out there but sometimes we don’t have the ability to see into their toolkit. This has become the driving force behind Pumps & Pipes throughout the last 15 years…”

Dr. Lucie Low, chief scientist for microgravity research at Axiom Space:

“‘Houston, we have a problem’ — everyone knows Houston as a major player in the aerospace industry as highlighted by this famous quote from Apollo 13. What people may not know and what is exciting to me about Houston are the opportunities for collaboration with other industries that can help drive our mission to build communities of healthy humans in space. With the largest medical center in the world right next to Johnson Space Center, Houston is a prime city for innovation at the intersection of medicine and space.”

David Horsup, managing director of technology at OGCI Climate Investments:

“The remarkable diversity of thought, culture, and expertise that exists in Houston creates an incredible cauldron for innovation. The city has been the leading light in pushing frontiers in energy, aerospace, and medicine for many years, and Pumps & Pipes is a powerful ‘node’ for some of the brightest minds across these industries to connect, collaborate, and innovate. I am extremely excited to see how Houston is pivoting to embrace the challenge that climate change is presenting, and the city will play a defining role going forward.”

Purchase tickets for Pumps & Pipes here and follow Pumps & Pipes on social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

Houston startup founders report on clean energy tech efficacy

seeing results

A team from Rice University has uncovered an inexpensive, scalable way to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

In research published this month in the journal Science, researchers from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, in partnership with Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, detail how they converted ammonia into carbon-free fuel using a light-activated catalyst.

The new catalyst separates the liquid ammonia into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas. Traditional catalysts require heat for chemical transformations, but the new catalyst can spur reactions with just the use of sunlight or LED light.

Additionally, the team showed that copper-iron antenna-reactors could be used in these light-driven chemical reactions, known as plasmonic photocatalysis. In heat-based reactions, or thermocatalysis, platinum, and related precious (and expensive) metals like palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium are required.

“Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts,” Naomi Halas, a co-author of the report from Rice, said in a statement. “This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.”

Halas, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was joined on the project by Peter Nordlander, Rice’s Wiess Chair and Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Rice alumni and adjunct professor of chemistry Hossein Robatjazi. Emily Carter, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and Environment, represented Princeton University.

“These results are a great motivator," Carter added. "They suggest it is likely that other combinations of abundant metals could be used as cost-effective catalysts for a wide range of chemical reactions.”

Houston-based Syzygy, which Halas and Nordlander founded in 2018, has licensed the technology used in the research and has begun scaled-up tests of the catalyst in the company’s commercially available, LED-powered reactors. According to Rice, the test at Syzygy showed the catalysts retained their efficiency under LED illumination and at a scale 500 times larger than in tests in the lab setup at Rice.

“This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants,” Nordlander said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Syzygy closed its $76 million series C round to continue its technology development ahead of future deployment/

Houston is home to many other organizations and researchers leading the charge in growing the hydrogen economy.

Earlier this year, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he's determined to position the city as hub for hydrogen innovation as one of the EPA's Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs. Organizations in Texas, Southwest Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, known and HyVelocity Hub, also announced this month that it would be applying for the regional funding.

And according to a recent report from The Center for Houston's Future, the Bayou City is poised to "lead a transformational clean hydrogen hub with global impact."