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

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

NASA selected 12 companies to provide services to its ISS program and five hail from just down the road of the program. Photo via nasa.gov

5 Houston-area space companies score ISS contracts with NASA

ready for takeoff

NASA has tapped a dozen companies to work on services for the International Space Station Program, and five come from the greater Houston region.

Houston-based Aegis Aerospace Inc., Cimarron Software Services, JES Tech, and Oceaneering were are all admitted to the program, as was Webster-based Leidos. The companies, along with the other seven selected, will provide research, engineering, and/or mission integration services to the ISS.

The program, which is based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is supported by a $478 million Research, Engineering & Mission Integration Services-2 or REMIS-2 contract, according to NASA.

The other selected companies are:

  • Axient Corp, based in Huntsville, Alabama
  • Consolidated Safety Services, based in Exploration Park, Florida
  • KBR Wyle, based in Fulton, Maryland
  • Metis, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Tec-Masters, based in Huntsville
  • Teledyne Brown Engineering, based in Huntsville
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama

"The companies will provide spaceflight, ground hardware and software, sustaining engineering functions and services, payload facility integration, and research mission integration operations services," reads a NASA news release. "The majority of the work will take place at contractor facilities across the country. Services also may be required at other NASA centers, contractor or subcontractor locations, or vendor facilities as requirements warrant."

Each of the selected companies will receive a "multiple-award, indefinite-quantity contract with firm-fixed price and cost-plus-fixed-fee task orders." The contract officially began January 12 and extends through Sept. 30, 2030, with an option to extend through Sept. 30, 2032.

Half of the selected companies — Aegis, Cimarron, Consolidated Safety Services, JES Tech, Metis, and Tec-Masters — are small businesses and were selected as a part of the contract's small business reserve.

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.”

The ISS houses hundreds of research projects — and the astronauts aboard just got a handful more. Image via NASA.gov

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

KBR signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center to provide private astronaut training in NASA facilities. Photo via NASA.gov

Houston tech company gets green light from NASA to train commercial astronauts

space tech

For 60 years, Houston-based KBR has supported NASA's astronauts. Now, though a recently signed Space Act Agreement, KBR will also be providing its human spaceflight operation services to commercial companies.

"KBR has pioneered space travel for more than half a century. We will leverage our domain expertise to assist private astronauts with their human spaceflight activities," says Stuart Bradie, KBR President and CEO, in a news release.

The arrangement will include KBR training private astronauts on NASA property — it's the only agreement of its kind. KBR will train for space tasks like operating onboard of the International Space Station, routine operational tasks, health and performance checks, responding to emergencies, and more.

"This historic agreement is a testament to KBR's long standing partnership with NASA. We will continue to work together to propel NASA's mission to fuel a low-Earth orbit economy and advance the future of commercial space," Bradie continues in the release.

Earlier this week, Axiom Space, a Houston-based space tech startup, announced it was selected to design a commercial space flight habitat to be attached to the ISS. KBR is among Axiom's professional partners on the project.

Image---Axiom-modules-connected-to-ISSKBR is one of Axiom Space's partners on its new NASA-sanctioned ISS project. Photo via AxiomSpace.com

The Axiom project includes plans to replace the ISS with a commercially operated space station. The targeted launch date for the commercial destination module is set for late 2024.

Both the Axiom and KBR agreements with NASA are in line with a shift toward commercialization within the space industry. Last June, NASA released its plan to introduce marketing and commercial opportunities to the ISS — with financial expense being a main factory.

"The agency's ultimate goal in low-Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which NASA is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at lower cost," reads the release online.

In an interview with InnovationMap last July, NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez explains that opening up the space industry to commercial opportunities allows for NASA to focus on research. The government agency doesn't need to worry about a return on investment, like commercial entities have to.

"With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another," Gonzalez says. "We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.