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

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.

Houston-based Axiom Space has raised more funds for its growing commercial space business. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston space tech company raises $130M series B

money moves

Just around a year ago, Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. closed a $100 million series A round. Now, the space tech company has announced even more financing as it grows and scales to support a NASA-commissioned project.

Axiom raised $130 million in its series B round led by C5 Capital with support from TQS Advisors, Declaration Partners, Moelis Dynasty Investments, Washington University in St. Louis, The Venture Collective, Aidenlair Capital, Hemisphere Ventures, and Starbridge Venture Capital.

"Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio and enhance our vision for a secure global future," says C5 operating partner Rob Meyerson, who will join the Axiom board of directors, in a news release. "The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond."

"Axiom Space was founded on the knowledge that commercial infrastructure and innovation in space would offer unique ways to improve life on Earth," says Axiom co-founder and executive chairman, Kam Ghaffarian, in the release. "Axiom's sole-selection by NASA to connect to ISS and ability to leverage its key revenue lines are evidence of the company's expertise and a business model that is set up to optimize across a variety of commercial on-orbit opportunities.

"This highly successful round is a pivotal moment for on-orbit commerce and its implications for our civilization's potential are far-reaching."

In January 2020, NASA selected Axiom to work on designing and building modules to be attached to the International Space Station. The projects could be ready as early as 2024. Axiom is working to create a commercial space station that would eventually serve as a replacement for ISS. This transformation is expected in late 2028.

In December, Axiom released new details of its 14-acre headquarters near the Houston Spaceport. The HQ is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

The recently raised funding will help support these ongoing Axiom projects.

"We are proud to partner with Axiom's exceptional management team, who built, led, and visited the International Space Station on behalf of NASA and its partners," Brian Stern, a partner at Declaration Partners, says. "The next-generation space station we are building today will be a key means of conducting space-based research, manufacturing, communication, and travel for decades to come."

Christine Galib and Courtney Cogdill of The Ion join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the four accelerator programs that are striving to advance Houston. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion's accelerators are working to bring out the best in Houston — from resiliency to diversity

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 71

When you look at the business accelerator programs offered at The Ion, a rising innovation hub in Midtown, you see Houston represented. From energy and space tech to resiliency and diversity, the four accelerators intentionally cover what Houston is all about.

Courtney Cogdill, program director of the Accelerator Hub, and Christine Galib, senior director, at The Ion joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what all they are focused on across the business accelerator programs at the hub. Editor's note: This podcast was recorded ahead of the winter storm that affected the state of Texas this week.

Now more than ever, innovators are dedicating their careers to resilient technologies that can enhance the city's future. And this effort comes naturally to Houstonians, Galib says on the podcast.

"There is an ethos here that is one of roll up your sleeves, collaborate, and get to work. Get the work done, and have fun while you're doing it," she says on the show. "We all come together in a time of challenge, and we really show each other that we're not just individually resilient, we are collectively resilient."

Neither Galib nor Cogdill are from Houston — but each have observed the same resiliency among the city and its people.

"Houston really just picks itself back up by the bootstraps and just runs," Cogdill says.

But The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, launched in 2019, was only just the beginning for The Ion's Accelerator Hub. Last year, three more accelerator programs were announced — the Aerospace Innovation Hub for Minority Business Enterprises at The Ion, Austin-based DivInc's Accelerator, and the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator. These were made possible through a series of grants — a $1.4 million one from NASA to launch the ASCI-Hub and a $1.5 million one from Economic Development Administration.

Galib and Cogdill discuss each of the programs, as well as what they are excited for when The Ion opens later this year. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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."

NASA has renewed its support for Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of NASA

Houston research organization receives renewal from NASA and millions in funding for space health projects

new funding

Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, was granted renewal from NASA this week, which will allow the organization to continue to conduct biomedical research geared at protecting astronauts in deep space through 2028.

According to a statement, NASA reviewed TRISH in December 2020 ahead of the five year mark of its cooperative agreement with BCM's Center for Space Medicine. NASA opted to continue the partnership and now TRISH will receive additional funding of up to $134.6 million from 2022 to 2028.

"NASA has received outstanding value from our bold approach to sourcing and advancing space health research and technologies," institute director Dorit Donoviel, said in a statement. "We are proud to be NASA's partner in its human space exploration mission and to be supporting the research necessary to create new frontiers in healthcare that will benefit all humans."

The institute will focus its efforts on Mars exploration missions in the next six years and has been given three main objectives, according to the release:

  • To build strategic partnerships that will increase the volume of available biometric data on the impact of space travel on health and astronaut performance
  • To build a digital platform that simulates the spaceflight environment and will allow researchers to model and test new health technologies on Earth
  • To develop tissue chip technology that will allow astronauts to place a variety of human cells in lunar orbit during the NASA Artemis research missions to track the effects of space radiation and microgravity on humans

Since TRISH was founded in 2016 it has led the charge in space health research and has partnered with and provided grants to an array of innovative startups to do so.

In 2020 is granted Houston-based Z3VR $50,000 to explore the ways virtual reality can boost physical and mental health among astronauts and it has funded several projects surrounding space radiation levels.

At the time of 2020 review, TRISH had developed and transitioned 34 completed astronaut health and protection projects to NASA and had connected 415 first-time NASA researchers with opportunities to develop space health solutions.

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Houston company receives FDA approval for tech that uses sound to blast away cellulite

Zip zap

Soliton, a Houston-based technology company, is using audio pulses to make waves in the med-aesthetic industry.

The company, which is licensed from the University of Texas on behalf of MD Anderson, announced that it had received FDA approval earlier this month for its novel and proprietary technology that can reduce the appearance of cellulite.

MIT engineer and doctor Christopher Capelli first developed the basis of the tool while he led the Office of Technology Based Ventures at M.D. Anderson.

Capelli uncovered that he could remove tattoos more effectively by treating the skin with up to 100 waves per second (about five to 10 times greater than other devices on the market), giving birth to the company's proprietary Rapid Acoustic Pulse (RAP) platform.

In 2012 he formed Soliton with co-founder and entrepreneur Walter Klemp, who also founded Houston-based Moleculin, and later brought on Brad Hauser as CEO. By 2019, the company had received FDA approval for using the technology for tattoo removal.

"The original indication was tattoo removal, which is what Chris envisioned," Hauser says. "The sound wave can increase in speed whenever it hits a stiffer or denser material. And tattoo ink is denser, stiffer than the surrounding dermis. That allows a shearing effect of the sound wave to disrupt that tattoo ink and help clear tattoos."

According to Hauser, the team then turned to a second application for the technology in the short-term improvement in the appearance of cellulite. With the use of the technology, patients can undergo a relatively pain-free, 40- to 60-minute non-invasive session with no recovery time.

Brad Hauser is the CEO of Soliton. Photo courtesy of Soliton

"It works similarly in the fibrous septa, which are the tethered bands that create the dimples and cellulite and the uneven skin. Those are stiffer than the surrounding fat cells in the subcutaneous tissue," Hauser says. "That allows the technology to disrupt those fibrous septa and loosen and release the dimples."

In 2021 the company plans to commercialize their product and get it into the hands of dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and other medical professionals for 25 key accounts—potentially including ones Houston—with a plan for a national rollout in 2022.

And they don't plan to stop there.

The company has already announced a partnership for a proof-of-concept study with the U.S. Navy in which Soliton will aim to use its technology to reduce the visibility of fibrotic scars, and more importantly work to increase mobility or playability of scars.

"Often the scar ends up causing restrictions in motion and discomfort with pressure of even clothing and certainly with sleeping," Hauser says. "We believe based on the reduction in volume and the increase in playability that we saw in our original proof-of-concept study that we will be able to bring benefits to these military patients."

Work on the study is slated to begin in the first half of this year.

In the meantime, the company is making headway with treatment of liver fibrosis, announcing just this week that it's pre-clinical study in animals demonstrated positive results and a reduction in effects by 42 percent seven days after the completion of carbon tetrachloride (CCL4) induction. The RAP technology was also named the best new technology by the Aesthetic Industry Association earlier this month.

"It's really targeting collagen fiber and fibroblasts on a cellular level" Hauser says. "Which we think has numerous potential uses in the future."

UH launches online MBA, plus six new digital degree programs

online ed

The University of Houston's C. T. Bauer College of Business announced this month that it will begin offering fully online Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Business Administration programs in the upcoming fall semester.

The new offerings are part of the college's 2020-2025 Strategic Plan that focuses on becoming a leader in digital learning and affordable education options.

In addition to the online BBA and MBA degrees, Bauer is launching five other fully online business-minded graduate programs:

  • Online Master of Science in Business Analytics
  • Online Master of Science in Finance
  • Online Master of Science in Management & Leadership
  • Online Master of Science in Management Information Systems
  • Online Master of Science in Supply Chain Management

Over the summer, Paul Pavlou, dean of the Bauer School and Cullen Distinguished Chair Professor, told InnovationMap that enrollment in the Bauer College had increased by about 70 percent, as the school focused on accessibility and affordability amid the pandemic and record job losses.

According to Pavlou, these new degree programs will be an extension of that effort.

"Given the recent developments due to COVID-19, and the broader challenges for higher education, it has become imperative to enhance our ability to leverage technology to offer courses remotely," he says in a statement.

The seven programs will cost between 15 to 20 percent less than traditional degree programs at the university, according to UH. The new programs will charge in-state tuition for all students, regardless of residency, and online students will not pay additional fees.

"These new offerings demonstrate our dedication to providing students financially accessible programs that emphasize innovation, technology, and experiential learning," says Paula Myrick Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH. "Student success is our top priority, and as the need for flexible instruction and course delivery increases, we will meet that need."

The Bauer School has long been touted as one of the top schools for entrepreneurship in the country. In late 2020, UH announced that it received a $13 million donation from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation to go toward Bauer's well-known programs, as part of the school's $1.2 billion "Here We Go" initiative.

Expert says Houston is the prime spot for creating and testing game-changing resilience solutions

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 72

The city of Houston, along the rest of the Lone Star State, has been hit from every direction — pandemics, hurricanes, winter storms, and more.

"We're just whipsawed," says Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory. "We've gone from back-to-back storms and hurricanes to COVID to snow and ice and its impact on energy. People are just exhausted."

Now, Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, this exhaustion is festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation.

Creating conversations about change is exactly what Seline and the Resilience Innovation Hub, which is based out of The Cannon Tower in downtown Houston, is focused on. Following all these catastrophic events, the industry is overwhelmed with data — and now is the time to put it to use on innovation and tech solutions.

"We are drowning in data and hungry for intelligence — actionable intelligence," Seline says, adding that now innovators and entrepreneurs are taking on this data and creating solutions.

The challenge then becomes convincing decision makers to pivot from what they know and are comfortable with to what they don't know and what they aren't comfortable with.

And, Seline says on the show, that needs to happen across the board — from public and private companies to government entities and nonprofits both locally and beyond.

"I think that it's time to flip this on its head and say to the world, 'we got it.,'" Seline says. "Because we know these challenges, we are opening the world to the best ideas to be piloted and demonstrated. All I ask is that we get elective and appointed officials who are open to ideas and solutions. That's how innovation occurs."

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.