Seven student-founded startups pitched their business plans at an annual NASA event. Photo via NASA.gov

Several groups of students from all over the United States tapped into technology developed by NASA to create business plans. The teams competed in Houston last week for thousands of dollars, and one team went home with the win.

NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project, or MUREP, hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event, MUREP Innovation and Technology Tech Transfer Idea Competition, or MITTIC, last week at Space Center Houston. Seven teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology.

“Students and faculty members of MITTIC are notably engaging with our agency, but they are helping to fulfill our mission to make the earth a better, safer place creating products and services that will shape the future," says Donna Shafer, associate director at Johnson Space Center.

All seven teams — each led by a minority student — went home with at least $5,000 as a prize for making it to the finals, but one team from the University of Massachusetts at Boston took home first place and a $10,000 prize. The winning team is also invited to join Team Piezo Pace from the University of St. Thomas, Houston, in a visit to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, for additional look in the innovation and entrepreneurial space.

The judges for the event included: HopeShimabuku, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the Texas Region; MeganOrtiz, project manager at NASA; LawrenceCosby, vice president of IP strategy at JPMorgan Chase & Co; TerikTidwell, director of inclusive innovation at VentureWell; JorgeValdes, program advisor on STEM education and intellectual property at the United States Patent and Trademark Office; WaltUgalde, economic development executive at NASA; and LauraBarron, autonomous systems technology deputy project manager at NASA.

The seven finalist teams — and the technology they are working on — are as follows:

  • Lone Star College - CyFair’s team Aquarius Solutions, which pitched its water purification product, ClearFlow, based off an ammonia removal system developed at NASA
  • Fayetteville State University in North Carolina’s ASAPA team pitched their Autonomous Solar Array Assembly drone technology that’s based on NASA’s Print-assisted Photovoltaic Assembly system for automated printing of solar panels.
  • University of Houston-Clear Lake’s team AstroNOTS has identified a technology to address the safety of wildfire rescue teams. The PyroCap is a emergence fire shelter based on NASA’s Lightweight Flexible Thermal Protection System.
  • Santa Monica College in California’s team, BREATHE, pitched a noninvasive technology to replace traditional mammograms. The device can analyze breath through a NASA-designed sensor.
  • University of Massachusetts-Boston’s winning team, LazerSense Solutions, is working on a technology for smoke and gas detection. The PartaSense device can detect everything from carbon monoxide to black mold. It’s based on NASA’s MPASS IP.
  • Hartnell College in California’s team PanterBotics is working on an zero-emission electric vehicle, the OmniZero, to address climate change. The technology, a modular robotic vehicle, originated at NASA.
  • University of Texas at Austin’s Longhorn Innovators, who pitched a thinking cap technology to increase and enhance focus. The wearable device is based on NASA technology ZONE, or Zeroing Out Negative Effects, an analysis from EEG sensors.

A new initiative from the city of Houston and Hertz aims to boost Houston's electric vehicle rental fleet. Photo via Mayor Sylvester Turner/Facebook

This new partnership will triple Houston's electric vehicle rental fleet

seeing green

A new partnership between The Hertz Corp. and the City of Houston will bring 2,100 rental electric vehicles to Houston, according to an announcement from the organizations earlier this week.

Dubbed Hertz Electrifies Houston, the program aims to boost Houston's EV rental fleet, as well add to the city's charging infrastructure and EV education and training opportunities.

The new vehicles will come from automakers Tesla, Polestar, and GM and can be rented to leisure and business customers, as well as rideshare drivers.

In partnership with bp pulse, Hertz Electrifies Houston will also bring a new EV fast-charging hub to Hobby Airport that's designed to serve ride-hail, taxi fleets and the general public.

"Our goal is to convert all non-emergency, light-duty municipal vehicles to electric by 2030," Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a statement. "This partnership with Hertz will provide an invaluable boost to achieve this goal and the goal of our Climate Action Plan for Houston to be a net-zero city by 2050."

In addition to the new fleet and charging hub, Hertz announced it will also donate an EV to Lone Star College-North Harris to help the college provide EV training to students in its auto servicing curriculum.

"Lone Star College-North Harris houses one of top automotive programs in Texas," Archie Blanson, president of Lone Star College-North Harris, says in the statement. "To make our students competitive and meet industry demand, we must ensure we are bringing the latest technologies, including a diversified fleet of EVs into the classroom.”

Earlier this month, Hertz also launched a Hertz Electrifies program in Denver. The initiative aims to bring 5,200 rental EVs to Denver. In 2022, the company first announced its plan to partner with bp pulse to install a national network of EV charging solutions for its customers.

Houston also has grown into a hub for EV and EV charging innovation recently. Houston-based Zeta Energy is leading efforts to develop efficient EV batteries, and received $4 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E Electric Vehicles for American Low-Carbon Living, or EVs4ALL, program earlier this year.

Houston's Revterra has also created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The company’s founder and CEO, Ben Jawdat, spoke about the energy transition on the Houston Innovators Podcast last month.
Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston e-commerce unicorn secures $130M in financing

scaling up

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

“Scaleup” refers to a startup that has achieved tremendous growth and has maintained a stable workforce, among other positive milestones. Airbnb, Peloton, and Uber are prime examples of businesses that evolved from startup to scaleup.

Cart.com says the new term loan facility from BlackRock consolidates its venture debt into one package “at competitive terms.” Those terms weren’t disclosed.

The company says the refinancing will enable it to expand into new markets and improve its technology, including its Constellation OMS order management system.

“Cart.com is one of the fastest-growing providers of commerce and logistics solutions today, and I’m excited to partner with BlackRock as we continue to aggressively invest to help our customers operate more efficiently,” Omair Tariq, the company’s founder and CEO, says in a news release.

Through a network of 14 fulfillment centers, Cart.com supports over 6,000 customers and 75 million orders per year.

"BlackRock is pleased to support Cart.com as it advances its mission to unify digital and physical commerce infrastructure," says Keon Reed, a director at BlackRock. “This latest facility underscores our confidence in the company’s differentiated product offerings and financial strategy as it enters its next stage of growth.”

Elon Musk says he's moving SpaceX, X headquarters from California to Texas

cha-cha-changes

Billionaire Elon Musk says he's moving the headquarters of SpaceX and social media company X to Texas from California.

Musk posted on X Tuesday that he plans on moving SpaceX from Hawthorne, California, to the company's rocket launch site dubbed Starbase in Texas. X will move to Austin from San Francisco.

He called a new law signed Monday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that bars school districts from requiring staff to notify parents of their child’s gender identification change the “final straw.”

“I did make it clear to Governor Newsom about a year ago that laws of this nature would force families and companies to leave California to protect their children,” Musk wrote.

Tesla, where Musk is CEO, moved its corporate headquarters to Austin from Palo Alto, California in 2021.

Musk has also said that he has moved his residence from California to Texas, where there is no state personal income tax.

SpaceX builds and launches its massive Starship rockets from the southern tip of Texas at Boca Chica Beach, near the Mexican border at a site called Starbase. The company’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Southern California.

It’s just below South Padre Island, and about 20 miles from Brownsville.

Play it back: This Houston innovator is on a mission to develop tech for the moon

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 244

Editor's note: This week on the Houston Innovators Podcast, we’re revisiting a conversation with Tim Crain, the co-founder and CTO at Intuitive Machines, that originally ran in October of 2023.

If you haven't noticed, the moon is having a bit of a moment — and Tim Crain of Intuitive Machines is here for it.

For the past five or so years, NASA and the federal government have introduced and strengthened initiatives to support innovation of technology to be used to get to and explore the moon.

NASA, which is currently focused on its Artemis program that's sending four missions to the moon, also launched the Commercial Lunar Payload Services that's working with several American companies, including Intuitive Machines, to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface.

"Around 2018 or 2019, the moon came back into favor as a destination for American space policy, and it came back in such a way that there's a directive at the national level — at a level above NASA — to explore and develop the moon as a national priority," Crain says in the episode.



On the show, Crain explains the history of Intuitive Machines, which has taken an indirect path to where it is today. The company was founded in 2013 by Crain and co-founders CEO Steve Altemus and Chairman Kamal Ghaffarian as a space-focused think tank. Crain says they learned how to run a business and meet customers' needs and expectations, but they never fell in love with any of the early technologies and ideas they developed — from long-range drones to precision drilling technologies.

But the company answered NASA's call for moon technology development, and Intuitive Machines won three of the NASA contracts so far, representing three missions for NASA.

"We dipped our toe in the 'let's develop the moon' river and promptly got pulled all the way in," Crain says. "We left our think tank, broad, multi-sector efforts behind, and really pivoted at that point to focus entirely on NASA's CLPS needs. ... The timing really could not have been any better."

Since recording the podcast, Intuitive Machines celebrated a historic mission that landed the first lunar lander on the surface of the moon in over 50 years — and the first commercially operated mission ever. The company is also working on a $30 million project for NASA to develop lunar lander technology.

This week, Intuitive Machines announced a successful test result for engine technology to be used in the lunar lander project.