Ax-1 is headed back to Earth after 12 days of research on the ISS. Photo courtesy of SpaceX

Editor's note: Undocking was delayed again on April 19, and a new timeline has not been announced. The original story is below.

After spending 12 days in space, a historic commercial space mission will splash back down on Earth this week.

Houston-based Axiom Space’s first mission Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1), which took off April 8 and connected to the International Space Station, has announced its plans for undocking and splashdown.

After some initial bad weather postponed the process, the four-member private astronaut crew now is aiming to undock at about 9 pm tonight, April 19, and then land off the coast of Florida at around 2:24 pm tomorrow, April 20. Just like launch, the coverage of both events will be available at Axiom's website.

The mission on SpaceX’s spacecraft sent four multinational private astronauts — Commander Michael López-Alegría, Pilot Larry Connor, Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe, and Mission Specialist Mark Pathy — to the ISS to conduct research and familiarize Axiom with launch, docking, and more.

Axiom Space, which reached $1 billion valuation and joined the Houston unicorn club last year after a $130 million investment round, is working on the first commercial space station to replace the ISS. The first launch of that mission is expected in late 2024. In the meantime, Axiom has a series of commercial launches to the existing station currently in orbit in order to prepare for development and orchestration of Axiom Station.

The Ax-1 mission, which has provided daily updates, has conducted over 20 research projects and even hit a few milestones, including:

  • The first-ever music duet performance in space — Commander López-Alegría and Neo-Classical Piano Prodigy BLKBOK made music and space history with their piano and keyboard duet
  • The Aging and Heart Health investigation, an experiment from the Mayo Clinic — a study that analyzes human cells for genetic markers of cellular aging and explores cardiac-like cells' adaptation to microgravity
  • Observation of Transient Luminous Events — Specialist Stibbe completed a space observation experiment and photographed a lightning storm over Darwin, Australia, to enhance understanding of the electrical processes in the atmosphere and to determine whether there’s a connection with climate change
  • Testing of the Holoportation system — Mission Specialist Pathy set up two-way AI technology that will allow the ability of future crew members to explore deep space with the ability to virtually bring friends, family, and physicians close with them so that they can get an on-Earth experience
  • Several outreach calls to Earth to STEM students from around the world — this included a call to children at Space Center Houston

Axiom shares more details on its mission research projects — which span technologies such as future space habitats, cancer research, and devices to purify air on space stations — online.

“As the first step on a path to building a diverse, thriving economy in low-Earth orbit, Axiom has partnered with leaders in academia and industry to bring new users and new investigations in research to the space station,” says Christian Maender, director of In-space Manufacturing and Research for Axiom Space, in a news release. “The collection of biological and technological tests during the Ax-1 mission represent a breadth of research that will inform everything from human health considerations to novel infrastructure and design for our future homes away from Earth, beginning with Axiom Station.”

The four-person crew spent 12 days on the ISS. Photo courtesy of NASA

Four commercial astronauts are headed to the ISS this week, thanks to a Houston tech company. Photo courtesy Axiom Space

Houston company prepares for takeoff of first commercial space launch

houston, we (almost) have liftoff

A Houston-based space tech company has been preparing for liftoff, and all signs point to moving forward with the planned launch tomorrow, April 8.

Axiom Space’s first mission — Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1) headed to the International Space Station on SpaceX machinery — is ready for takeoff. SpaceX, Axiom, and NASA are targeting a launch time of 10:17 a.m. Docking is expected to occur Saturday, April 9, at around 6:30 a.m. Axiom will be airing a lifestream of the launch on its website.

Axiom Space, which reached $1 billion valuation and joined the Houston unicorn club last year after a $130 million investment round, is working on the first commercial space station to replace the ISS. The first launch of that mission is expected in late 2024. In the meantime, Axiom has a series of commercial launches to the existing station currently in orbit in order to prepare for development and orchestration of Axiom Station.

"This really represents the first step where a bunch of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low earth orbit that aren't members of the government are able to take this opportunity," says Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, at a recent press conference. "It's really a precursor mission to a fully commercial space station that we're developing."

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft arrived last week in the hangar at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and, according to a news release from Axiom, the spacecraft has since been mated with the Falcon 9 rocket.

On the 10-day mission, the Ax-1 crew will spend eight days on the ISS conducting research and testing technology and operations. The mission's members include:

  • Commander Michael López-Alegría of Spain and the United States
  • Pilot Larry Connor of the United States
  • Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe of Israel
  • Mission Specialist Mark Pathy of Canada

"This mission is important because not only are we're also developing the techniques we will be using communication from mission control to space, but we're also developing all the procedures and processes that make space travel possible," says Peggy Whitson, director of Human Space Flight at Axiom Space, at the news conference.


Part of Axiom's long-term plans include an Earth observatory of its commercial space station. Photo via axiomspace.com

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

Houston experts at SXSW: Why now is the opportune time for space commercialization

Houston House

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.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center is a top place to work in the U.S. and Texas. Photo by F. Carter Smith/courtesy of MD Anderson

These Houston startups and companies clock in as the top employers in the U.S.

best of the rest

Whose boss is doing something right in Houston? Forbes set out to find out.

New rankings from Forbes identified the top employers in Houston and beyond, and that included both bigger companies and the country’s best startup employers. In Houston, the startups ranked as top employers are:

No. 120 — Imbuit
No. 310 — Code Ninjas (Pearland)
No. 353 — Axiom Space
No. 462 — Liongard

When it comes to more traditional businesses, Dr. Pete Pisters, CEO of MD Anderson Cancer Center, continues his reign. He was named a top boss in 2021. Now, the cancer treatment facility/research center he leads has been named one of the best employers in a new report.

MD Anderson Cancer Center ranked No. 10 among the country’s best large employers in the country. Staffing some 22,000 employees, the world-renowned cancer center also landed at No. 25 in Forbes list of America's Best Employers in 2021.

Other Houston-area companies on the list include: Houston Methodist (No. 37), Waste Management (No. 245), Sysco (No. 314), Shell Oil (no. 361), Halliburton (No. 389), Schlumberger (No. 403), ExxonMobil (No. 440), and BP (No. 487).

Other Texas employers ranked among the best large employers in the U.S. are:

  • No. 10 — MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston
  • No. 37 — Houston Methodist, Houston
  • No. 38 — H-E-B, San Antonio
  • No. 135 — USAA, San Antonio
  • No. 140 — Keller Williams Realty, Austin
  • No. 143 — Dell Technologies, Round Rock
  • No. 214 — Texas Tech University, Lubbock
  • No. 245 — Waste Management, Houston
  • No. 279 — University of Texas at Austin
  • No. 314 — Sysco, Houston
  • No. 318 — Daikin Industries, Waller (North American operations hub for manufacturing, marketing, research, R&D, and customer support)
  • No. 324 — Whole Foods Market, Austin
  • No. 361 — Shell Oil, Houston
  • No. 389 — Halliburton, Houston
  • No. 403 — Schlumberger, Houston
  • No. 440 — ExxonMobil, Houston
  • No. 487 — BP, Houston (North American headquarters)

Elsewhere in Texas, Dallas reigns as the capital of Texas when it comes to the best big and small employers, according to Forbes, which put University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas at No. 9 among the country’s best large employers in the country and Dallas-based life insurance platform Bestow at No. 16 among the country’s best startup employers.

UT Southwestern isn’t the only Dallas-Fort Worth employer to pop up on the Forbes list of the best large employers. Richardson-based software company RealPage sits at No. 49; Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, No. 56; Plano-based Toyota North America, No. 253; Plano-based Cinemark, No. 370; Dallas-based Jacobs, No. 375; Dallas-based Topgolf, No. 394; Dallas-based Primoris Services, No. 399; Irving-based Fluor, No. 422; Dallas-based CBRE, No. 423; Irving-based McKesson, No. 429; Fort Worth-based American Airlines, No. 446; and Plano-based Keurig Dr Pepper, No. 483.

Dallas-based software company Slync.io, holding the No. 290 spot for best startups.

What follows are the other Texas employers ranked among the best startup employers in the country.

Austin

No. 104 — Apty
No. 121 — Homeward
No. 169 — SparkCognition
No. 186 — Outdoor Voices
No. 255 — Outdoorsy
No. 323 — ICON
No. 324 — The Zebra
No. 330 — TrustRadius
No. 335 — Innovetive Petcare (Cedar Park)
No. 387 — AlertMedia
No. 400 — Iris Telehealth
No. 410 — Wheel
No. 455 — Billd
No. 460 — Aceable
No. 470 — Shipwell

Forbes teamed up with data and research company Statista to develop the rankings of the best large employers and best startup employers.

Catch up on two big pieces of news landing at the Houston Spaceport. Image via fly2houston.com

Space City News: Houston Spaceport receives grant, unicorn hires architecture firm

rocketing roundup

The Space City is starting 2022 off strong with news launching out of the Houston Spaceport — a 400-acre space in Southeast Houston.

The two big headlines include a unicorn company releasing the latest details of its earthbound project and fresh funds from the state to support the space ecosystem in Texas.

Governor Abbott doles out $10M in spaceport grants

Texas has launched fresh funding into two spaceport projects. Image via fly2houston.com

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced $10 million in funding to two Texas spaceports as a part of the state's Spaceport Trust Fund. The Houston Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million and the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million.

The fund is administered by the Governor's Office of Economic Development and Tourism and was created to support the development of spaceport infrastructure, create quality jobs, and attract continuing investments that will strengthen the economic future of the state, according to a news release.

"For decades, Texas has been a trailblazer in space technology and we are proud to help cultivate more innovation and development in this growing industry in Cameron and Harris County," says Abbott in the release. "This investment in the Cameron County and Houston Spaceport Development Corporations will create even more economic opportunities for Texans across the state and continue our legacy as a leader in space technology."

Axiom Space hires Dallas-based architecture and engineering firm

Axiom Space has made progress on developing its 14-acre headquarters. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston-based unicorn Axiom Space has announced that it awarded Dallas-based Jacobs the architecture and engineering phase one design contract. The firm will be working on the 100,000-square-foot facility planned for the 400-acre Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport.

Axiom Space's plans are ro build the first commercial space station that will provide a central hub for research, to support microgravity experiments, manufacturing, and commerce in low Earth orbit missions, according to a news release.

"This is an exciting and historic moment for Axiom and the greater Houston area," says Axiom CTO Matt Ondler in the release. "For the first time, spacecraft will be built and outfitted right here in Houston, Texas. This facility will provide us with the infrastructure necessary to scale up operations and bring more aerospace jobs to the area. With this new facility, we are not only building next generation spacecraft, but also solidifying Houston as the U.S. commercial industry's gateway to space."

Axiom Space, which raised $130M in venture capital last year, is building out its 14-acre headquarters to accommodate the creation of more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

"Houston is a city built on innovation and is becoming a next-generation tech hub in the United States," says Ron Williams, senior vice president at Jacobs. "Privately funded infrastructure will drive U.S. leadership in space. Jacobs is committed to providing integrated solutions to accelerate the future of commercial space operations."

In total, Texas saw seven companies reach unicorn status in 2021. Image via Getty Images

These are the 2 Houston startups that joined the unicorn club in 2021

money moves

Houston welcomed a duo of unicorns in 2021, according to a new report. But these unicorns aren’t those mythical multicolored creatures. Rather, they’re startups valued at $1 billion or more.

As of December 2021, there were more than 900 unicorns around the world, according to market research company CB Insights. Former unicorns include Airbnb, Facebook, and Google.

Joining the unicorn club in 2021 were two startups based in the Houston area:

  • Solugen, currently valued at $1.8 billion, according to the company, which uses corn syrup to produce chemicals.
  • Axiom Space, valued at more than $1 billion as of February. The startup is developing the world’s first space station for commercial purposes.

Houston's other unicorn is fintech company, HighRadius, which reached the $1 billion valuation mark in January of 2020.

The Lone Star State added a few other companies to its unicorn herd. Austin had four companies claim the prestigious status — the most newly minted unicorns in Texas — and now has a total of six unicorns. Dallas added one new unicorn to its economy, making a total of three Dallas area-based unicorns, according to CB Insights.

Here are the other 2021 unicorns in Texas:

  • Austin-based Iodine Software, valued at more than $1 billion as of December. The company’s artificial intelligence offering aims to help healthcare organizations improve their operations.
  • Austin-based ZenBusiness, valued at $1.7 billion as of November. ZenBusiness provides an online platform designed to help entrepreneurs start, run, and grow their small businesses.
  • Cedar Park-based Firefly Aerospace, valued at more than $1 billion as of May. The startup makes rockets and commercial spacecraft.
  • Austin-based The Zebra, valued at more than $1 billion as of April. The Zebra runs an online marketplace that enables consumers to compare insurance quotes.
  • Irving-based Caris Life Sciences is valued at a whopping $7.83 billion as of May. Caris employs artificial intelligence to come up with targeted cancer treatments.

Startups, particularly those in the tech space, increasingly are drawn to Austin. In 2020, CompTIA, a trade group for the tech industry, placed Austin atop its Tech Town USA index. The organization cited Austin as a “favorable alternative” to the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City for startups and other companies.

Joshua Baer, founder and CEO of Austin-based Capital Factory, an accelerator for startups, told Texas Monthly in April that Austin’s status as a business magnet has risen recently.

“Suddenly, we’ve gone from us having to beat our chest and tell everybody else how great Austin and Texas are to everybody showing up here, telling us why it’s so great, and why they moved here,” Baer says.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.