Here's what experiments TRISH is launching aboard Axiom Space's next mission. Photo via NASA

Houston's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, will launch six more experiments into space this spring aboard Axiom Space's Ax-2 mission, the organization announced this week.

The biomedical research conducted through TRISH, in consortium with CalTeach and MIT, will look into how space travel impacts everything from motion sickness to memory over the course of the mission's 10-day stint on the International Space Station.

The crew will consist of four astronauts: Commander Peggy Whitson (previously with NASA), Pilot John Shoffner and Mission Specialists Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi. It's a historic team, bringing the first female private space crew commander and the first Saudi astronauts to the ISS.

“Insights gathered from this work improve our understanding of how the human body and mind respond to spaceflight, helping us to prepare future astronauts to remain safe and healthy during longer-duration missions," Dr. Dorit Donoviel, TRISH executive director and professor in the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a statement.

The six projects onboard the mission have been developed by researchers within TRISH as well as the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University and Baylor College of Medicine. They aim to assess the following:

  • Spaceflight participants’ performance in memory, abstraction, spatial orientation, emotion recognition, risk decision making and sustained attention before and after the mission -Astronauts’ inner ears and eyes' response to motion before and after space travel and how this relates to motion sickness and nausea during launch and landing
  • The effects of spaceflight on the human body at the genomic level
  • Changes to the eyes and brain during spaceflight
  • Astronaut's sleep, personality, health history, team dynamics and immune-related symptoms
  • Sensorimotor abilities and changes in space and how this can impact astronauts' ability to stand, balance and have full body control on the moon

Some of this information will become part of TRISH’s Enhancing eXploration Platforms and ANalog Definition, or EXPAND, program, which aims to boost human health on commercial space flights through its database. The program launched in 2021.

Ax-2 is Axiom's second all-private astronaut mission to the ISS and will launch out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. Axiom was first established in 2016 with the goal of building the world's first commercial space station.

TRISH is also slated to launch nine experiments on board SpaceX's Polaris Dawn mission, which is now expected to launch this summer. The research aboard Polaris Dawn is intended to complement research supported by TRISH on the Inspiration4 all-civilian mission to orbit, which was also operated by SpaceX in 2021.

Axiom Space has announced plans for its third commercial space launch and revealed details of its high-tech spacesuit. Photo courtesy of NASA

Houston space tech company secures third NASA mission, reveals new spacesuits

ready for liftoff

A Houston-based space tech company has revealed details on two of its commercial partnerships with NASA.

NASA and Axiom Space have again signed a mission order for a private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. The mission will commence sometime in November or on and will be from the agency’s NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Axiom Mission 3 is the third mission of its kind and, according to a statement from NASA, is expected to be a 14-day trip.

The ISS's Multilateral Crew Operations Panel will approve four proposed crew members and two back up crew submitted by Axiom for the Ax-3 mission. The crew will be expected to train for their flight with NASA, international partners, and SpaceX beginning this spring, according to NASA.

“Axiom Space’s selection to lead the next private astronaut mission to the International Space Station enables us to continue expanding access to nations, academia, commercial entities, and emerging industries to research, test, and demonstrate new technologies in microgravity,” says Michael Suffredini, CEO and president of Axiom Space, in the release. “As NASA’s focus shifts back to the Moon and on to Mars, we are committed to transforming low-Earth orbit into a global space marketplace, where access to space moves beyond the partners of the space station to nations, institutions and individuals with new ideas fueling a thriving human economy beyond Earth.”

Axiom's historic first commercial launch was in spring of 2022, and Ax-2, which will launch the first Saudi astronauts to visit the ISS, is expected to launch this spring. In addition to these two missions, Axiom has been tasked by NASA to develop spacesuits and space station technology.

After several months of working on the suits, Axiom has revealed the details of the technology that will be worn by NASA astronauts returning to the moon on the Artemis III mission that's scheduled to land near the lunar south pole in 2025.

The newly revealed spacesuit will be worn by the first woman and first person of color to visit the moon. Photo courtesy of Axiom Space

“We’re carrying on NASA’s legacy by designing an advanced spacesuit that will allow astronauts to operate safely and effectively on the Moon,” says Suffredini in a statement from the company. “Axiom Space’s Artemis III spacesuit will be ready to meet the complex challenges of the lunar south pole and help grow our understanding of the Moon in order to enable a long-term presence there.”

Called the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or AxEMU, the prototype was revealed at Space Center Houston’s Moon 2 Mars Festival today, March 15. According to Axiom, a full fleet of training spacesuits will be delivered to NASA by late this summer.

At the same time as the Ax-3 mission announcement, NASA also announced that it has selected Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas, to carry multiple payloads to the far side of the Moon. According to NASA, the commercial lander will deliver two agency payloads, as well as communication and data relay satellite for lunar orbit, which is an European Space Agency collaboration with NASA.

The contract — awarded for around $112 million — is targeted to launch in 2026 through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, initiative, and part of the agency’s Artemis program. It's the second award to Firefly under the CLPS initiative.

“The diversity of currently available commercial orbital human spaceflight opportunities is truly astounding. NASA’s commercial crew flights to the space station for our government astronauts paved the way for fully private missions to space like Inspiration4 and Polaris as well as private astronaut missions to the orbiting laboratory like the one we are announcing today,” says Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in the release. “We are starting to see the incorporation of space into our economic sphere, and it is going to revolutionize the way people see, use, and experience space.”

Axiom Space has announced its crew for its second commercial space launch. Image via Axiom

Houston space company announces historic flight crew

ready for liftoff

A Houston-based company is making history with its next commercial flight mission.

Axiom Space announced that Axiom Mission 2, or Ax-2, the second all-private mission to the International Space Station, will have members of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's national astronaut program aboard. It will also be the first private mission commanded by a woman: Peggy Whitson, Axiom's director of human spaceflight and former NASA astronaut.

“Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station cements our mission of expanding access to space worldwide and supporting the growth of the low-Earth orbit economy as we build Axiom Station,” says Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, in a news release. “Ax-2 moves Axiom Space one step closer toward the realization of a commercial space station in low-Earth orbit and enables us to build on the legacy and achievements of the ISS, leveraging the benefits of microgravity to better life on Earth.”

Expected to launch this spring, it's the second ISS mission for the commercial aerospace company founded in 2016. Ax-2 Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi will be the first Saudi astronauts to visit the ISS after Axiom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reached an agreement in 2022. With this mission, KSA will become only the sixth country to have two astronauts working on the ISS at the same time.

“This flight is an integral milestone of a comprehensive program aiming to train and qualify experienced Saudis to undertake human spaceflight, conduct scientific experiments, participate in international research, and future space-related missions contributing to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030,” reads a statement from the country.

Pilot John Shoffner, a businessman and aviator from Knoxville, Tennessee, with over 8,500 hours of flying under his belt, is the crew's fourth and final member.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Ax-2 crew aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the ISS from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and they will spend 10 days on the mission. The mission is targeted for launch in the spring of 2023, and will be the first private space mission to include both private astronauts and astronauts representing foreign governments.

Whitson, a Rice university alum, will add to her deep resume, which also includes adding even more space time to the standing record for the longest cumulative time of any astronaut in the history of the U.S. space program.

“I am honored and excited to lead the Ax-2 crew and mission,” Whitson says in a statement. “The space station is a vital platform for all types of research. We at Axiom Space are committed to working with NASA to open the door for private citizens to contribute to and advance the groundbreaking research aboard the station, forging the path for us to operate, live and work abroad Axiom Station.”

Axiom aims to build its own commercial space station to launch in late 2025. Axiom’s first mission completed last April, and the company, deemed a unicorn with a $1 billion valuation, has raised $200 million, including a $130 million series B round in 2021.

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Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

future of medicine

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

Houston student selected for prestigious health care research program

bright future

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.”

Ziaee aims to become a physician who can use an understanding of social health conditions to guide his clinical practice. At a young age, he was inspired to go into the field by his family's own experience.

According to UH, Ziaee is the oldest child of Iranian American immigrants. He saw firsthand the challenges of how language and cultural barriers can impact patients' access to and level of care.

“I think a lot of people define health as purely biological, but a lot of other factors influence our well-being, such as mental health, financial health, and even access to good food, medical care and the internet,” he said in a statement. “I am interested in seeing the relationship among all these things and how they impact our health. So far, a lot of health policies and systems have not really looked beyond biology.”

"I want everyone to have an equal chance to access health care and take charge of their well-being. We need to have the systems in place that let people do that,” he added.

Ziaee is already on his way to helping Houston-based and national health systems and organizations make headway in this area.

He was named as a student regent on the UH System Board of Regents last year, sits on the board of the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross, and is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

Last year he was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John R. Lewis scholar, for which he presented his research project about predicting food insecurity in pediatric clinical settings and recommendations to improve the assessment based off his summer research with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Prior to this, he completed a 10-week guided research experience using data visualization and predictive modeling techniques to assess food insecurity in the Third Ward.

“I just took every opportunity that came to me,” Ziaee said. “All my experiences connect with my central desire to increase health access and improve health care. I am very intentional about connecting the dots to my passion.”

Earlier this year, three UH student researchers were named among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). The projects were each awarded between about $750,000 to up to $1.5 million.

Houston tech entrepreneur expands energy data co. in Europe, continues to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 229

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology."

To Kelly, Amperon should be hiring in the same field as Google and other big tech companies that sit at the top of the market. And Kelly has done a lot of hiring recently. Recently closing the company's $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital, Amperon has tripled its team in the past 14 months.

With his growing team, Kelly also speaks to the importance of partnerships as the company scales. Earlier this month, Amperon announced that it is replatforming its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

And there are more collaborations where that comes from.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly says on the podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Along with more partners, Amperon is entering an era of expansion, specifically in Europe, which Kelly says has taken place at a fast pace.

"Amperon will be live in a month in 25 countries," he says.

While Amperon's technology isn't energy transition specific, Kelly shares how it's been surprising how many clean tech and climate tech lists Amperon has made it on.

"We don't brand ourselves as a clean tech company," Kelly says, "but we have four of the top six or eight wind providers who have all invested in Amperon. So, there's something there."

Amperon, which originally founded in 2018 before relocating to Houston a couple of years ago, is providing technology that helps customers move toward a lower carbon future.

"If you look at our customer base, Amperon is the heart of the energy transition. And Houston is the heart of the energy transition," he says.