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

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.

These Houston employers reign supreme when it comes to the best workplaces. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Houston company crowned No. 1 large employer in Texas by Fortune Magazine, joining 21 local firms on list

love your job

Houstonians looking for their next employment opportunity might want to consider these 22 Houston-based companies that were just named the best workplaces in Texas by Fortune Magazine and Great Place to Work.

David Weekley Homes was named the No. 1 large employer in Texas, with workers celebrating that their company goes "above and beyond in almost every way possible" and values trust more than anything else.

"They trust you to get your work done and you never feel guilty about having to leave early for a medical appointment, or to pick your kid up from school," the report says. "They trust you to get your work done while maintaining a normal personal life."

The report also speaks highly of the construction company's 401K matching plan, and that workers can become owners in the company after two years of employment.

The remaining Houston companies that make up the top three best large Texas employers include information technology providers Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company (No. 2), and real estate investors Camden Property Trust (No. 3).

Also earning a spot in the top 10 is Hilcorp Energy Company (No. 8).

Speaking on Camden Property Trust, employees in the report say their leaders have developed a "one-of-a-kind" workplace culture, similar to a large family.

"Our celebrations, conferences, meetings feel like a family reunion," the report says. "Our leaders truly care about each and every single person and make decisions with everyone's best interest in mind."

The Best Workplaces in Texas award, which saw some of the same companies on the 2022 list, is the only one of its kind in the U.S. that "selects winners based on how fairly employees are treated," according to a press release. The companies are evaluated based on how well they treat their employees across several factors, including race, gender, age, disability status, and more.

The other Houston-based companies that made it onto Fortune's Best Large Workplaces in Texas 2023 include Transwestern (No. 12), Cornerstone Home Lending, Inc. (No. 14), and KBR (No. 24).

Furthermore, 17 additional Houston employers made it onto Fortune's Best Small and Medium Workplaces in Texas ranking. While Dallas companies dominate the top three, Houston's continuing education and learning center Continued made it into No. 4.

"[Continued] provide[s] so many benefits to better our home and work-life balance," the report says. "There is also a great focus on appreciating diversity and inclusion."The other Houston employers that earned spots on Fortune's Best Small and Medium Workplaces in Texas 2023 report are:

  • No. 12 – Hilltop Residential
  • No. 13 – WizeHire
  • No. 14 – Republic State Mortgage Co.
  • No. 16 – E.A.G. Business Holdings, Incorporated
  • No. 23 – Venterra Realty
  • No. 26 – Optimum Consultancy Services
  • No. 39 – 9th Wonder
  • No. 40 – Entelligence
  • No. 52 – Detechtion Technologies
  • No. 53 – Tricon Energy
  • No. 57 – Eagle Point Solutions
  • No. 64 – Hatch Agency Real Estate
  • No. 66 – Simucase
  • No. 69 – Crestwood Equity Partners

Just outside Houston, Cypress-based Specialized Assessment and Consulting ranked No. 31 and TK Trailer Parts in Madisonville ranked No. 65 in the small and medium workplace report.The full list of 2023's best workplaces in Texas can be found on greatplacetowork.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

NASA’s Joint Polar Satellite System is the nation’s advanced network of polar-orbiting environmental satellites, and a Houston joint venture is now officially working on the project. Image via nesdis.noaa.gov

Houston space tech joint venture snags contract with NASA valued up to $719M

system upgrade

A joint venture led by Houston-based space exploration company Intuitive Machines has landed a contract worth up to $719 million to work on NASA’s Joint Polar Satellite System.

Space & Technology Solutions, Intuitive Machines’ joint venture with Houston-based engineering and construction company KBR, secured the contract. Intuitive Machines supplies products and services to support robotic and human space exploration.

“Humanity’s advancement into the solar system is built upon more than a decade of innovation … , and Intuitive Machines intends to continue that legacy,” Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, says in a news release.

“This win is of strategic importance,” he adds, “allowing Intuitive Machines to support NASA in designing, developing, and demonstrating critical technology required to support the emerging orbital servicing market, and a validation of the company’s experience in spacecraft development, autonomous systems, and near-space communications.”

The Joint Polar Satellite System is the nation’s advanced network of polar-orbiting environmental satellites, says the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service. These satellites circle the earth from pole to pole and cross the equator 14 times daily.

The project launched its first satellite in 2011. By 2032, the system will feature five satellites.

The satellites measure conditions in the atmosphere, in oceans, and on land. These conditions include temperatures, moisture, clouds, rainfall, dense fog, volcanic ash, smoke and fires, snow and ice cover, and ozone.

Information collected by the satellite system supplies data to:

  • Help the National Weather Service monitor and forecast weather, including hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards.
  • Enable scientists and forecasters to study long-term climate trends.
Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Overheard: Experts share how Houston can lead commercial space exploration

Eavesdropping in houston

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.

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."

The panel of experts discussed the Space City's history — but also its future as a leader in space exploration. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Overheard: Houston experts weigh in on the future of the Space City

EAVESDROPPING IN HOUSTON

Houston's been known as the Space City for about 50 years since "Houston" was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. But whether or not that nickname will continue to stick was up for debate at a 2019 SpaceCom panel on November 21.

The panel, entitled "Regional Benefits of a Commercial Space Economy: Case Study Houston," the panelists set out to discuss the city's rich history of space exploration, as well as to answer the question of where Houston's space industry is headed.

"We could ask that question in a passive way, but my preference is that here in Houston we ask the question now, answer it, and be very proactive and deliberate about making sure we get the outcome that we want," says Vernon McDonald, senior vice president at KBR and moderator of the discussion.

If you missed the enlightening discussion, here are a few takeaways from the panelists.

"Houston is in this great position to be this beacon to lead entrepreneurs and inspire other regions to explore further."

Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy. Jenet, who is based in Brownsville, Texas, is working to develop a vibrant commercial space hub in South Texas. In a lot of ways, the area looks to Houston's history for its development, he says.

"We built a community of engineers and scientists and a workforce that's all vested in the outcome of the human space flight program."

Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines. The creation of the Johnson Space Center developed generations within the community of scientists and engineers, but, moving forward, Houston has to be intentional about building its talent base. "I'm very passionate about doing that here in Houston," Altemus adds.

"There's a beacon of hope for our community if we can organize around it and attract commercial business here to keep this city the Space City, but redefine ourselves as a commercial space hub."

Altemus says, adding that it's going to take further development, talent, and funds — like what's happening at the Houston Spaceport — to make this transition.

"Over the years, Houston took space for granted. Houston started to focus on the bigger industries that brought in funding and jobs."

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At the risk of being unpopular, Gonzalez mentions that the city's attention has been diverted from space exploration. However, he adds, there are new initiatives from the Greater Houston Partnership and Houston First that are picking up the slack.

"The answers to Houston delivering on its potential is going to be collaborations — how well we collaborate."

Harvin Moore, president at Houston Exponential. Houston is collaborative, and the city needs to make sure its resources are inclusive as commercial space develops in town.

"I'd like to say that Houston is the birthplace of human space flight, and in 50 years, I'd like to see the city be the leader and the point of the spirit for human exploration internationally and commercially out in mars and beyond.

Altemus responds when asked about the Space City's next 50 years.

"I think what Houston will be most proud of in 50 years is that we played an extremely important role in shaping how Texas leads the world in commercial space exploration."

Jenet, who mentions that there's space exploration innovation happening statewide.

"When you think about what [leading space exploration] company will be here fifty years from now, I don't think it's been created yet. But I would like that company to be here in Houston."

Gonzalez says, adding that the first trillionaire is likely to make his or her fortune in the space industry, and he wants that money here in Houston.

"A lot of our future is not going to be based on what huge companies or government are doing but much more about entrepreneurs."

Moore says, emphasizing the need for developing startup resources in Houston.

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

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A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

science supported

An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.