With the addition of Mitsubishi, Starlab now boasts three equity partners. Photo via starlab-space.com

Houston-based Starlab Space, which is developing a commercial space station, has enlisted a high-profile investor — Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsubishi.

With the addition of Mitsubishi, Starlab now boasts three equity partners. The two others are aerospace company Voyager Space and defense and space product manufacturer Airbus Defense and Space. Financial terms of the Mitsubishi deal weren’t disclosed.

Voyager and Airbus finalized creation of the Starlab joint venture in January 2024. The two companies announced the joint venture in August 2023.

Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of Voyager, says the Mitsubishi partnership will help “unlock space technology on a global scale and drive meaningful impact across several industries, from space to ground.”

“We are very pleased to welcome Mitsubishi … as a strategic partner in our joint venture with Voyager Space. This brings Starlab Space to the next level on the way to a truly global endeavor,” Mike Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defense and Space, says in a news release.

The continuously staffed, low-Earth-orbit Starlab space station will serve NASA, other space agencies, businesses, and research organizations.

Starlab announced in January 2024 that it had tapped Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship to launch Starlab’s stainless-steel space station. A launch date hasn’t been revealed, although it’s tentatively set for the late 2020s.

The Starlab station will help fill the gap that’ll be left by the International Space Station, which NASA plans to retire in 2031.

Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis was one of six involved in a remote surgery in space demonstration. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

Houston surgeon takes part in first-of-its-kind surgery in space

remote control health care

A small surgical robot at the International Space Station completed its first surgery demo in zero gravity last week, and one of the surgeons tasked with the remote robotic operations on simulated tissue was Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis.

Voloyiannis took part in what is being referred to as “surgery in space” by being one of the six doctors remotely controlling spaceMIRA — Miniaturized In Vivo Robotic Assistant — that performed several operations on simulated tissue at the lab located in the space station. The surgeons operated remotely from earth in Lincoln, Nebraska. The remote surgeons worked to control the robot's hands to provide tension to the simulated tissue made of rubber bands. They then used the other hand to dissect the elastic tissue with scissors.

“I said during the procedure ‘it was a small rubber band cut, but a great leap for surgery,’“ Voloyiannis tells InnovationMap. “This was a huge milestone for me personally in my career.”

The robot was developed by Virtual Incision Corporation, and made possible through a partnership between NASA and the University of Nebraska. The team of surgeons took part in a demonstration that is considered a common surgical task, as they dissected the correct piece of tissue under pressure.

Latency is the time delay between when the command is sent and the robot receives it, and that was the big challenge the team faced. The delay was about 0.85 of a second according to what the colorectal surgeon who worked on spaceMIRA Dr. Michael Jobst said to CNN. The demo overall was a success according to the team, and posed a new-found adrenaline rush due to the groundbreaking innovation.

“The excitement of the new and the unknown,” Voloyiannis says on the feeling of doing the first operation of its kind. “I never thought I’d be doing something like this when I was in training and in medical school.”

Voloyiannis serves as the chairman of colon and rectal surgery for The US Oncology Network. He was chosen for this experiment due to his experience and expertise performing robotic colorectal surgery. Voloyiannis and the developers are hopeful that this type of technology will soon allow doctors to perform this specialized robotic surgery on patients living in rural areas without a specialized surgeon nearby, military battlefields, as well as regularly in space one day.

“The same concept of remote surgery regularly in space could certainly be entertained,” Voloyiannis says. “When you do things with an absence of gravity and perform a surgery in that environment — of course that changes the way we do things. When you have an absence of gravity with bodily fluids, it is a very hard surgery, but with partial gravity that idea can be entertained.

"Remotely, internet connectivity would have to be considered and you’d have someone remote like me here, while potentially there you’d have someone with less training doing the procedure there guiding the robot," he continues. "It’s quite the concept though.”

The doctors had to account for nearly a second of delay in connectivity. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

Texas A&M University signed an agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center last month, and the American Center for Manufacturing and Innovation signed a similar agreement a few weeks later. Photo via nasa.gov

NASA signs 2 public-private lease agreements at Houston campus to promote human space research

ready to launch

NASA and the American Center for Manufacturing and Innovation signed an agreement Thursday, Feb. 29 to lease underutilized land in a 240-acre Exploration Park at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The deal comes after a similar lease with the Texas A&M University System.

ACMI will enable the development of facilities to enable commercial and defense space manufacturing, while A&M reports that it will develop a facility for human spaceflight research and development.

These two public/private lease agreements allow industry and academia to use NASA Johnson land to create facilities for a collaborative development environment that increases commercial access and enhances the United States' commercial competitiveness in the space and aerospace industries.

“For more than 60 years, NASA Johnson has been the hub of human spaceflight,” NASA Johnson Director Vanessa Wyche says in a news release. “Exploration Park will be the next spoke in the larger wheel of a robust and durable space economy that will benefit not only exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, but all of humanity as the benefits of space exploration research roll home to Earth.”

Calling it the Space Systems Campus, ACMI plans to incorporate an applied research facility partnered with multiple stakeholders across academia, state and local government, the Department of Defense and regional economic development organizations.

"This Space Systems Campus will be a significant component within our objectives for a robust and durable space economy that will benefit not only the nation's efforts to explore the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, but all of humanity as the benefits of space exploration research roll home to Earth," Wyche says of the ACMI deal.

As the home of Mission Control Center for the agency's human space missions, astronaut training, robotics, human health and space medicine, NASA Johnson leads the way for the human exploration. Leveraging this unique role and location, Exploration Park will play a key role in helping the human spaceflight community attain U.S. goals for the commercialization and development of a robust space economy by creating an infrastructure that fosters a multi-use environment where academic researchers, aerospace companies and entrepreneurs can collaborate with NASA. Exploration Park will create an infrastructure that allows for a multi-use space hardware development environment, where academic researchers, aerospace companies and entrepreneurs can collaborate on space exploration's greatest challenges.

"ACMI Properties will develop this Campus to serve the needs of our future tenants, aerospace industry, the Department of Defense and other significant stakeholders that comprise our ecosystem approach," said Simon Shewmaker, head of development for ACMI Properties. "Our aim is to support human spaceflight missions for the next 40 years and beyond."

NASA issued an announcement for proposals for use of the undeveloped and underutilized land near Saturn Lane on June 9, 2023, and has just completed negotiations with ACMI to formalize the lease agreement. The parcel is outside of Johnson's controlled access area and adjacent to its main campus. NASA will lease the land for 20 years with two 20-year extension options, for a potential of up to 60 years.

In the coming years, NASA and its academic, commercial, and international partners will see the completion of the International Space Station Program, the commercial development of low Earth orbit, and the first human Artemis campaign missions establishing sustainable human presence on the Moon in preparation for human missions to Mars.

Johnson already is leading the commercialization of space with the commercial cargo and crew programs and private astronaut missions to the space station. The center also is supporting the development of commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, and lunar-capable commercial spacesuits and lunar landers that will be provided as services to both NASA and the private sector to accelerate human access to space. Through the development of Exploration Park, the center will broaden the scope of the human spaceflight community that is tackling the many difficult challenges ahead.

FluxWorks, based down the road in College Station, has received the opportunity to test its tech in collaboration with the ISS. Photo via fluxworks.co

Innovative Texas hardtech startup secures award to test in space

ready for liftoff

A Houston-area startup and Greentown Houston member has secured a prestigious space prize.

College Station’s FluxWorks, which develops and commercializes non-contact magnetic gearboxes for use in extreme environments, was one of two startups to receive the Technology in Space Prize, which is funded by Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, manager of the International Space Station National Laboratory. Los Angeles-based Symphony Bio also received the honor.

Through the MassChallenge startup accelerator program, the two companies now get to utilize the research environment available through the ISS National Lab. CASIS and Boeing awarded Symphony Bio and FluxWorks more than $630,000 in total through the contest. Approximately $20 million has been awarded for more than 30 projects, which have already launched to the space station, since the event’s beginning.

"Boeing is excited to partner with CASIS to support the advancement of cutting-edge research using the unique environment of the orbiting laboratory,” says Scott Copeland, director for ISS research integration at Boeing, in a news release. “Enabling research that can help millions diagnosed with cancer and advancing mechanical innovations of non-contact magnetic gear technology will benefit human life in both the harsh environment of space and terrestrial environments.

"There are many smart people out there with great ideas who can leverage the space station to advance innovation, and these two companies serve as an inspiration to them all,” he continues.

FluxWorks, which won the 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition, will use the space station to test performance of a new gear. The magnetic gear will be tested to assess its startup behavior, dynamic operation, vibrational characteristics, and seal and bearing behavior in microgravity. Gearbox's goal is to reduce the mass of motors required in a variety of applications, but the lubricant needed to make them work is not designed for use in extreme environments, like space. Magnetic gears do not require lubricant, which makes them an alternative.

Symphony Bio will use the orbiting laboratory to develop a new cancer treatment that hopes to harness the immune system to fight tumors.

Prada is collaborating with Houston-based aerospace company Axiom Space on the design of spacesuits for NASA’s Artemis III mission to the moon. Photo via axiomspace.com

Houston company collaborates with major fashion designer for spacesuit project

astronaut couture

Courtesy of the Prada luxury brand, NASA astronauts are getting an infusion of fashion.

Prada is collaborating with Houston-based aerospace company Axiom Space on the design of spacesuits for NASA’s Artemis III mission to the moon. Astronauts haven’t yet been chosen for the mission, which is set for 2025.

“Prada’s technical expertise with raw materials, manufacturing techniques, and innovative design concepts will bring advanced technologies instrumental in ensuring not only the comfort of astronauts on the lunar surface, but also the much-needed human factors considerations absent from legacy spacesuits,” says Michael Suffredini, co-founder, president, and CEO of Axiom Space.

The spacesuit, called the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU), is geared toward improving astronauts’ flexibility, boosting protection against harsh conditions, and supplying tools for exploration and scientific activities.

“Our decades of experimentation, cutting-edge technology, and design know-how – which started back in the ’90s with Luna Rossa challenging for the America’s Cup – will now be applied to the design of a spacesuit for the Artemis era. It is a true celebration of the power of human creativity and innovation to advance civilization,” says Lorenzo Bertelli, marketing director of the Prada brand.

NASA has enlisted Axiom and Charlotte, North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace to outfit astronauts with next-generation spacesuits. Axiom’s partners on this project are KBR and Sophic Synergistics, both based in Houston, along with Air-Lock, A-P-T Research, Arrow Science and Technology, David Clark Co., and Paragon Space Development.

Collins maintains a sizable presence at the Houston Spaceport.

In July, Axiom secured a NASA task order potentially worth $147 million to modify the Artemis III spacesuit for astronauts heading to the International Space Station. This follows a $228 million NASA task order awarded to Axiom in 2022 for development of the Artemis III spacesuit.

The task orders are part of Axiom’s $1.26 billion spacesuit contract with NASA. All told, NASA has earmarked as much as $3.5 billion for new spacesuits.

Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini (right) has announced the company's series C round with support from Aljazira Capital, led by CEO Naif AlMesned. Photo courtesy of Axiom Space

Houston space tech startup raises $350M series C, clinches unicorn status

$1B club

Houston has another unicorn — a company valued at $1 billion or more — thanks to a recent round of funding.

Axiom Space released the news this week that it's closed its series C round of funding to the tune of $350 million. While the company didn't release its valuation, it confirmed to Bloomberg that it's over the $1 billion threshold. Axiom reports that, according to available data, it's now raised the second-most funding of any private space company in 2023 behind SpaceX.

Saudi Arabia-based Aljazira Capital and South Korea-based Boryung Co. led the round. To date, Axiom has raised over $505 million with $2.2 billion in customer contracts, according to the company.

“We are honored to team with investors like Aljazira Capital, Boryung and others, who are committed to realizing the Axiom Space vision,” Axiom Space CEO and president Michael Suffredini says in a news release. “Together, we are working to serve innovators in medicine, materials science, and on-orbit infrastructure who represent billions of dollars in demand over the coming decade.

"We are building on the legacy of the International Space Station, leveraging the pillars that were constructed in low-Earth orbit more than two decades ago, to now support a burgeoning global space economy,” he continues.

Axiom, founded in 2016 by Suffredini and Executive Chairman Kam Ghaffarian, is working on the first commercial space station that will replace the International Space Station when NASA retires it in 2031. The first module is expected to launch to the ISS by 2026.

Boryung, which has reportedly invested in Axiom prior to this round, is a firm focused on health care investments. Chairman of the firm, Jay Kim, says Boryung is making investments in technology that supports human space missions and building a space health care system.

“We recognize the depth of human spaceflight knowledge and the level of space station construction and management experience at Axiom Space, as well as the sophistication of the company’s sales and business strategy,” Kim says in the release. “We have a shared vision and ethos and are excited to build opportunity together.”

Naif AlMesned, CEO and managing director of Aljazira Capital, says his investment in Axiom is in accordance with Saudi Vision 2030, a government program launched in 2016 by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to increase economic, cultural, and social diversification for the sovereign state.

“We believe in the importance of innovation in various sectors and across various markets," AlMesned says in the release. "In line with the Saudi Vision 2030’s transformative approach, we acknowledge the need for technology toward the advancement of human life. To that end, we are excited to support Axiom Space along its journey of building for beyond.”

In addition to its work on Axiom Station, the company is working on other contracts with NASA, including constructing a new age spacesuit, a long-term NASA contract that's reported to be $1.26 billion. Axiom has also collaborated with NASA on two private astronaut missions — with two more planned for 2024.

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$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”

Houston HR software startup rolls out platform at local hospital system

tapping into tech

More than 14,000 nurses at one of the largest nonprofit health care providers in Texas have access to a new skills and competency management software.

Kahuna Workforce Solutions has officially deployed its platform at Memorial Hermann Health System, consisting of 17 hospitals and more than 250 care delivery sites. The platform will streamline onboarding processes and increase transparency and accessibility for staff.

“Kahuna will enhance our clinical competency experience and fully aligns with our nursing strategy to optimize our processes, prioritize innovation and safety, and excel as a top provider of care and clinical advancement for clinicians,” Bryan Sisk, senior vice president and chief nursing executive for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

“Memorial Hermann is committed to the Houston community and helping to develop the next generation of nurses,” Sisk continues. “The Kahuna platform will help improve the transparency, autonomy and efficiency of our competency management and development processes for our nurses to better support them in their roles, while also ensuring we provide high-quality care for our patients.”

The rollout comes six months after the software-as-a-service company raised a $21 million series B round of funding.

“We are thrilled to work with Memorial Hermann as they enrich all aspects of their clinical competency management practices with Kahuna’s skills management software,” adds Jai Shah, CEO of Kahuna Workforce Solutions. “This collaboration unites two Houston-based organizations and demonstrates a joint commitment to enhancing the standard of health care through digitized competency management in our Houston community and far beyond.”

Houston geothermal company grows Google partnership to provide power to Nevada

feeling lucky

Houston-based Fervo Energy’s geothermal energy soon will help power the world’s most popular website.

Through a first-of-its-kind proposal, Las Vegas-based public utility NV Energy would supply 115 megawatts of geothermal power generated by Fervo for Google’s two data centers in Nevada. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

In 2021, Google teamed up with Fervo to develop a pilot project for geothermal power in Nevada. Two years later, electricity from this project started flowing into the Nevada grid serving the two Google data centers. Google spent $600 million to build each of the centers, which are in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, and Storey County, which is east of Reno.

The proposed agreement with NV Energy would bring about 25 times more geothermal power capacity to the Nevada grid, Google says, and enable more around-the-clock clean power for the search engine company’s Nevada data centers.

A data center gobbles up 10 to 50 times the energy per square foot of floor space that a typical office building does, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“NV Energy and Google’s partnership to develop new solutions to bring clean … energy technology — like enhanced geothermal — onto Nevada’s grid at this scale is remarkable. This innovative proposal will not be paid for by NV Energy’s other customers but will help ensure all our customers benefit from cleaner, greener energy resources,” Doug Cannon, president and CEO of NV Energy, says in a Google blog post.

Utility regulators still must sign off on the proposal.

“If approved, it provides a blueprint for other utilities and large customers in Nevada to accelerate clean energy goals,” Cannon says.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.