Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Campbell of HAN and The Artemis Fund, Larry Lawson of Proxima Clinical Research, and Vanessa Wyche of the Johnson Space Center. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from medical device development to fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and general partner at The Artemis Fund

Local investment leader talks trends in Houston venture capital activity

Stephanie Campbell joins the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share some trends in early-stage investing. Photo courtesy of HAN

There were so many question marks at the beginning of the pandemic, especially for startup funding. Stephanie Campbell, who manages the most active angel network as well as a venture capital fund, says no one was sure how anything was going to pan out. Now, looking back on last year, VC did ok, she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and the Houston Angel Network saw membership growth.

"I think that given the markets with quite a bit of liquidity, people were looking for new and interesting ways to invest and make a return," Campbell says on the podcast. "In 2020, we actually grew by 30 percent and are up to 130 members of the Houston Angel Network and are continuing to grow through 2021."

Campbell shares more of her observations on the show and what she's focused on next. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima Clinical Research

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

When Larry Lawson started his career in the medical device industry, it was hard to get funding. The health tech founder and investor says if it wasn't oil or real estate, banks couldn't understand well enough to make a loan. So, he bootstrapped, raised from friends and family, and found venture capital support for his business endeavors over the years. Now, he's celebrating a $1.4 billion exit of his last business, Preventice Solutions, a deal that closed earlier this year.

The ecosystem in Houston has changed, he says, and he's seen it evolve as the Texas Medical Center grew and the Rice Business Plan Competition brought impressive student innovators from all around the globe.

"The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world," he tells InnovationMap. "It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it." Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wyche, director of Johnson Space Center

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

For the first time, NASA has a Black woman at the helm of a space center. Vanessa Wyche has been named director of Johnson Space Center in Houston after serving as acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors. Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

Houston's Johnson Space Center names history-making new director

local leader

NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston has witnessed a universe of history-making moments. There's now another milestone to add to the list.

On June 30, Vanessa Wyche was named director of Johnson Space Center, becoming the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Wyche had been acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors.

"As the home to America's astronaut corps, International Space Station mission operations, the Orion and Gateway programs, and a host of future space developments, Johnson is a world leader in human space exploration and is playing a key role in the next giant leaps in American excellence in space," Wyche says. "I look forward to working with everyone as we push forward to the moon and inspire a new generation of explorers to reach for the stars."

Before being named acting director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche had been deputy director since August 2018. Wyche, a 31-year NASA veteran, also has served as assistant director of the center and director of the center's Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, worked in the executive office of the NASA administrator, served as a flight manager for several space shuttle missions, and has led other center-level technical organizations and programs. The South Carolina native holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Clemson University.

Wyche succeeds Mark Geyer as director of Johnson Space Center. Geyer stepped down in May to focus on his cancer treatment. He had led the center since 2018 as its 12th director. In a video released in May, Geyer said he had been coping with an unidentified form of cancer for about 12 months.

Geyer remains with NASA as a senior adviser to the agency's associate administrator.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson simultaneously announced Wyche's appointment and Janet Petro's appointment as director of Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Both Vanessa and Janet are exceptional leaders who will help propel NASA forward as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before," Nelson says. "It's an incredible time at NASA, and with Vanessa and Janet leading the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, NASA will embark on a new era of space exploration — starting with the Artemis I launch to the moon later this year."

Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, became NASA administrator in May following his nomination by President Biden. During his congressional tenure, Nelson was one of NASA's staunchest advocates and even flew aboard the Columbia space shuttle. He succeeds acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Jurczyk ran the agency after the departure of Bridenstine in January, at the end of the Trump presidency.

In 2019, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar reported the nearly 1,700-acre Johnson Space Center generates an economic impact of $4.7 billion in Texas and supports more than 52,000 jobs.

"NASA's history is intertwined with Texas' history, grit, and can-do spirit, and NASA's future in Texas will be crucial in building tomorrow's Texas economy," Hegar said at the time.

NASA has tapped Firefly Aerospace, headquartered in Texas, to land science equipment on the moon. Courtesy of Firefly Aerospace.

This Texas company is on a mission to the moon with $93 million NASA contract

SHOOT FOR THE MOON

A local aerospace company is over the moon about its latest endeavor: a NASA-funded project to deliver scientific payloads to the lunar surface.

NASA recently awarded rocket-maker Firefly Aerospace $93.3 million to deliver a suite of science and technology demonstrations and equipment to the moon in 2023. The award is part of a NASA initiative — and key to its moon-focused Artemis program — that enables the agency to tap commercial partners to quickly dispatch and land science and technology payloads on the moon.

As part of the deal, Firefly is responsible for what NASA calls "end-to-end delivery services," meaning the company will compile the NASA-sponsored and commercial payloads, weighing more than 200 pounds, launch them from Earth, land them on the moon using its Blue Ghost lander, which was designed and developed at Firefly's Cedar Park facility, and manage mission operations.

"Our team's collective experience resulted in a creative technical solution to meet the needs of all these payloads, with a strong emphasis on both lunar science return and customer service through each mission phase," says Will Coogan, Firefly's lunar lander chief engineer.

For Firefly, the mission supports the company's overall goal to become the leading space-transportation company in the U.S. The NASA award was publicized the same day Firefly announced a new board of directors and its plans to implement an internal restructuring of the company, namely designating specific business units dedicated to launchers and spacecraft, and expanding its government-relations team.

This is the first NASA award of its kind for Firefly, which is scheduled to deliver the goods to the moon's low-lying Crisium basin, enabling NASA to further investigate the lunar surface, all with the goal of preparing for future human missions to — and sustainable human presence on — the moon.

"The payloads we're sending as part of this delivery service span across multiple areas, from investigating the lunar soil and testing a sample capture technology, to giving us information about the moon's thermal properties and magnetic field," says Chris Culbert, manager of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Firefly's Blue Ghost will land in an area of the Crisium basin known as Mare Crisium, a 300-mile-wide valley where NASA hopes to gain more understanding about the loose rock and soil, as well as the interaction of solar wind and Earth's magnetic field.

The lunar investigations will come shortly before NASA's planned missions to the moon and beyond. As part of its Artemis program, NASA aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, with the agency noting its partnerships with commercial companies like Firefly will help NASA "establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade," then use that knowledge to "take the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Perseverance has landed on Mars. Illustration courtesy of NASA

NASA and Johnson Space Center celebrate unprecedented Mars Perseverance landing

Mars landing

While Houston is in the depths of a historic freeze, some spacey locals are celebrating a major cosmic milestone. NASA — and Johnson Space Center, locally — are toasting the landing of Perseverance, the amiable roving vehicle, on Mars.

The reliable rover, nicknamed "Percy," touched down on the rocky Red Planet at approximately 2:55 pm Houston time on Thursday, February 18, to cheers at JSC and at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which is spearheading the mission.

In a harrowing descent, described by NASA tech crews as "seven minutes of terror," the rover plunged through the thin Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph. A 70-foot parachute and powered descent slowed the rover to about 2 mph before a "sky crane maneuver," and soft landing at Mars' Jezero Crater.

Importantly, the intrepid Perseverance is carrying the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter – that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. Aside from undertaking crucial experiments and sample collections, the first order of business is ensuring that Perseverance is "healthy," said NASA Perseverance staffer, Jessica Samuels, on NASA TV.

"If there's one thing we know, it's that landing on Mars is never easy," said NASA associate administrator for Communications Marc Etkind, in a statement. "But as NASA's fifth Mars rover, Perseverance has an extraordinary engineering pedigree and mission team. We are excited to invite the entire world to share this exciting event with us!"

Proud, starry-eyed Houstonians can watch the developments live on NASA TV online.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

At a recent virtual event, experts discussed the hard tech wave that's coming for Houston. Photo via Getty Images

A hard tech revolution is coming, and Houston is primed to play a role in it

diving into deep tech

The past couple decades of innovation has been largely defined by software — and its been a bit of a boom. However, lately it's become evident that it's time for hardware innovation to shine.

At the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, a few hard tech innovators joined a virtual discussion on the future of hardware — and what Houston's role will be in it.

When it comes to advancing technology for humankind, Adam Sharkawy, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Material Impact, a HXVF portfolio fund, says it's time to expand the walls of what is possible.

"Unlike other types of technologies that may facilitate the possible, deep and hard technologies expand what is in the realm of the possible," he says on the panel. "Software has caught up, and we need a new deep tech wave."

And the future looks promising, as Sharkawy says he's seen hard tech grow over the past 5 to 7 years by about 22 percent. Nic Radford, president and CEO of Houston Mechatronics agrees it's time to shift the focus to hard tech.

"The Information Age was the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but now we need to uncover the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world is," he says. "And we need to make those investments toward that."

But investments seem, at least in the recent past, harder to come by for hard tech startups compared to software companies with quick exit strategies.

"Deep tech is traditionally thought of as requiring deep pockets," Sharkawy says.

Radford says there was over $167 billion in capital deployments last year, and only 8 percent of that went to industrial or hard tech. Hardware, he says, is tougher to evaluate, they take longer to exit and are tougher to scale.

"To me that's what makes them a gold mine," Radford adds. "It's an underserved market for sure, and that's because we're tougher to evaluate."

Something to note though, he continues, is that hard tech is going to have a bigger societal impact, but maybe it's not the one with the biggest return.

"I think corporates have an special role to play in the inevitability of hard tech," Radford says. "They aren't completely motivated by financial returns."

Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, says he's had a different experience with raising funds. The Houston entrepreneur has raised over $100 million and is planning to go public soon. He's achieved this by attracting investment from the top VC funds in the country. If you zero in on these powerful funds, you can see they are dedicating more and more funds to this arena. And, he predicts, other VC funds will follow.

"This is a unique time for hardware companies to go and and raise from the top venture capitals of the world," Chakrabarti says.

The city of Houston, with its firm footing in the energy and space industries has an important role to play in this new era.

"The Houston area has all the key ingredients to be an innovation hub — no question," Sharkawy says.

The panelists identified Houston's fine education institutions, major corporations present, access to talent, and more as indicators for success. But the innovation here needs to continue to develop intentionally.

"I'd love to see Houston not try to copycat into a general tech hub," Sharkawy says. "Instead it would be great for Houston leverage its unique position as a leader in energy and space and help its constituents of more traditional energy — big corporates, for example — transform into the new frontier."

Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says she's seen the space industry take off as the field becomes more and more commercialized. And locally there's a lot of potential for Houston and all the resources and infrastructure that already exists.

"It's about taking what you're good at, and making it better," she says.

Each of the panelists expressed confidence in this evolving wave of hard tech — and are keeping a close watch on the major players as well as the city of Houston.

"We're going to have to get into the world and do something," Radford says. "That next wave of innovation is specifically interacting with our environment, in my opinion."

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City launches public dashboard for tracking COVID-19 in Houston's wastewater

data points

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

Rice University rises with massive $100M gift for innovative new student center

student centered

Rice University's Owls are soaring of late, with the school just being named the top in Texas and No. 7 in the U.S. Now, the institution known as the "Ivy League of the South" is the recipient of a mammoth gift aimed at a game-changing student center.

The Moody Foundation has granted Rice University a massive $100 million for its planned Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity, which will replace Rice's current Memorial Center (RMC), and will become a new focal point for the university's 300-acre wooded campus, the school announced.

Notably, this new student center is designed by Sir David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates; the acclaimed architect's other works include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Scheduled to break ground in early 2022 and construction completed in 2023, the brand-new Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity will maintain some elements of the old RMC, namely the chapel and cloisters. Students and staff can expect demolition of the rest of the existing RMC, per a press release.

Moody's $100 million grant matches the record for the largest gift in the university's history. (Last year, the Robert A. Welch Foundation donated $100 million to the school to establish the innovation-driven Welch Institute.) The Moody Foundation has contributed over $125 million to Rice since 1964, a press release notes.

As part of the Moody $100 million gift, a new Moody Fund for Student Opportunity will support an endowment dedicated to student programs "physically anchored in the new student center and elsewhere in the university," according to the school.

All this supports Rice's recently announced plans for a 20-percent expansion of the undergraduate student body by fall 2025, as CultureMap previously reported.

"We are extremely grateful for this extraordinary philanthropy in support of Rice students," said Rice president David Leebron in a statement. "This gift will enable our students to broaden their engagements and experiences while at Rice in ways that will empower their success throughout their lives. It will also enable us to both connect more deeply with Houston and with the world. This will be the epitome of what an inclusive and outward-looking student center should be."

Elle Moody, a trustee of both the Moody Foundation and Rice, added: "As a Rice University alumna, I know this gift will have a profound and lasting effect on the campus and its students. This investment is supporting much more than just a building. We're investing in every student, so they have access to pursue any endeavor whether it's leadership, artistic, athletic, global or more."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.