Leaders across the spectrum are coming together this week to shine a spotlight on the future of tech jobs in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

This week, leaders in government, business, and academia are convening to work within the community to explore how we can leverage partnerships and new federal programs to drive investment into Houston’s burgeoning innovation ecosystem.

At AI Across America: Houston, we’ll begin forming plans and partnerships capable of sparking an innovation ecosystem, fueling AI education, training, research, development, and job creation. We’ll also examine how students, workers, businesses, and academics in the community can prepare for upcoming opportunities and challenges.

Why Houston

Besides being near Texas’ 10th District, choosing Houston was easy in its own right. According to a study by Axios and LinkedIn, between 2020 and 2021, while the traditional tech hubs bled top talent, Houston gained 10.6 percent new tech workers. Those workers arrived to a solid foundation; in 2022 the Houston metro area had net tech employment of 134,436 people. The growth is steady too. From 2010 to 2019, the Houston area tech workforce grew 12.3 percent.

Recently, Houstonians are leveraging federal programs and public-private partnerships to build innovative, collaborative environments. These include places like The Ion, East End Maker Hub, and Houston Community College.

Defining the project

The AI Across America project is a collaboration between SeedAI, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and the Congressional AI Caucus. Working in conjunction, the organizations support efforts in the public and private sectors to expand access to AI education, training, development, testing, and job creation for communities across the country.

The AI Caucus is a group of U.S. Representatives working together to better understand their constituent's interests and those of all Americans as it pertains to AI. The organization works to explain the underlying technology and the ecosystem.

SeedAI does the groundwork to build collaboration across the private sector, government, academia, and civil society to support community-driven AI investments. The work of SeedAI focuses specifically on people who have been historically-marginalized and overlooked.

This is a critical moment for AI in America and beyond

AI is the battleground of the next great global competition. We have to be the first to build and master AI technology. Yet, because AI is a reflection of the people creating it and historical data, pursuing technology through the perspective of only a small group of people opens us to disproportionate harm and unknown risks.

Worse still, if the barrier to entry for AI is allowed to continue growing, we risk losing our most precious resource – the ingenuity waiting to be unleashed across the country. How, in those circumstances, can we succeed when faced with a nation like China with a population dwarfing the U.S. alongside an ability to spend far more agilely and extensively?

How can we succeed, and what is Houston’s role?

Fortunately, through recently-passed legislation called the Chips and Science Act, we have an opportunity to reclaim international leadership in a quintessentially American way: by leveraging the diverse strengths of communities across the country.

Houston already has a head start and an expanding tech economy – with planning and collaboration, Houstonians can be first in line to build new resources for AI education and development. When every state and community begins to realize their potential in the AI-powered future, Houston can play a leading role in guiding others to success and enabling their transformation.

If we succeed, we’ll uncover ingenuity and inventions we would’ve never anticipated. And as AI becomes easier to apply, we’ll have a real chance to build an AI-first generation of workers and builders from coast to coast.

Once we become competitive internally, we will be unbeatable internationally. If we succeed, we’ll lead the world in economic competitiveness and national security for decades to come.

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Austin Carson is the founder of SeedAI, a nonprofit established to work with a diverse group of policymakers, academics, and private sector experts to help communities across the United States access the resources they need to engage with AI. Congressman Michael T. McCaul, Republican Leader for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Vice Chair of the Congressional AI Caucus, is currently serving his ninth term representing Texas' 10th Congressional District which stretches from the city of Austin to the Houston suburbs.

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.