This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Nick Skytland of NASA, Neal Dikeman of Energy Transition Ventures, and Bill McKeon of TMC. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from space tech to health care innovation — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Nick Skytland, chief technologist at NASA Johnson Space Center

Nick Skytland, chief technologist at NASA Johnson Space Center, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

For most people, it might be pretty hard to envision a future where astronauts are living on the moon or even Mars in the next few decades, but Nick Skytland, chief technologist at NASA Johnson Space Center, says he sees that future pretty clearly.

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has achieved many milestones, from the from putting the first man in orbit to having astronauts live in space for over 20 years consecutively. But it's a new era for NASA — and its commercial partners.

"What has changed in the past decade or so is that space flight is no longer just a government focus," Skytland says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We have an entire space industry that's growing and starting to thrive in the United States, and that's an important part of our strategy going forward." Read more.

Neal Dikeman, partner at Energy Transition Ventures

Houston-based energy tech investor Neal Dikeman writes his observations on Houston's venture capital and startup community's growth — in stark comparison of Silicon Valley's recent evolution. Photo via LinkedIn

In his guest column for InnovationMap, Neal Dikeman, a Houston-based energy transition investor, shares how Houston's innovation ecosystem differs from Silicon Valley these days. While deemed a newer ecosystem, there appears to be a growing amount of activity in and around the Ion, where Dikeman works out of. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley is pretty quiet.

"Founders are learning that Houston’s venture investment and tech scene has an actual home these days, and is open for business," he writes in the column. Read more.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center

Mayor Sylvester Turner, TMC CEO Bill McKeon, Governor Greg Abbott, and others gave their remarks at the TMC3 Collaborative Building opening. Photo via tmc.edu

For nearly a decade, thee Texas Medical Center and its partners have been working on the plans for Helix Park, a 37-acre campus expansion of TMC. As of this week, the first building has opened its doors to the public.

The TMC3 Collaborative Building officially opened today to a crowd of media, public officials, and health care executives. The institutional agnostic, 250,000-square-foot building will anchor Helix Park and house research initiatives from the four founding partners: Texas Medical Center, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas A&M University Health Science Center, and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“Today, we lay the cornerstone of a new campus fully dedicated to streamlining the commercialization of life-changing innovations in medicine and technologies,” William McKeon, president and CEO of TMC, says at the event. “We are incredibly excited to both welcome our founding institutions and industry partners to the Collaborative Building and to invite the community to experience the Helix Park campus and its beautiful parks with a series of special events in the months ahead."Read more.

Nick Skytland, chief technologist at NASA Johnson Space Center, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based NASA exec sees exciting, transformative future for fast-growing space industry

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 209

For most people, it might be pretty hard to envision a future where astronauts are living on the moon or even Mars in the next few decades, but Nick Skytland, chief technologist at NASA Johnson Space Center, says he sees that future pretty clearly.

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has achieved many milestones, from the from putting the first man in orbit to having astronauts live in space for over 20 years consecutively. But it's a new era for NASA — and its commercial partners.

"What has changed in the past decade or so is that space flight is no longer just a government focus," Skytland says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We have an entire space industry that's growing and starting to thrive in the United States, and that's an important part of our strategy going forward."

According to Skytland, the emergence of the space industry allows NASA to stick to its core mandate of exploring the unknown across its many programs — some of which have a strong presence at JSC — and in collaboration with companies, like Intuitive Machines. Tim Crain, co-founder and CTO of Intuitive Machines, joined the podcast last week to discuss his views on the future of space. He will discuss IM's journey in detail for a NASA Tech Talk at the Ion, a series that NASA puts on under Skytland's leadership.

On the show, Skytland emphasizes how much the world has changed just in the past few years, so the near future holds big developments in space — from developments on the moon or even Mars.

"The next 60 years of human spaceflight are even more exciting in my opinion than the last 60 years," Skytland says. "We're at a pivot point. The total space economy, by some measures is is $450 billion. NASA's over all budget is $25 billion — it's a small percentage of the overall industry. That's a really exciting time to be alive especially if you're a mall business or entrepreneur."

Skytland, who's bullish on the development of the space industry, says Houston's role in the future of space should be a big one.

"Our vision for Houston is for it to continue to be the Space City and a hub for human space flight," Skytland says. "We talk regularly at JSC about how giant leaps start here. We are an amazing city full of talented people, a lot of resources, and definitely a lot of vision for the future."

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Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

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Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

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Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Houston med school develops revolutionary mRNA vaccine for elephants

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An innovative team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital has worked with the Houston Zoo to develop a first-of-its-kind treatment for elephants, which has been administered to its first patient.

Tess, the beloved, 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo’s elephant herd, is recovering well after receiving the first-ever mRNA vaccine against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) 1A on Tuesday, June 18. The veterinary staff at the Houston Zoo will monitor Tess in the coming weeks to check her reaction and the efficacy of the vaccine.

EEHV 1A is a deadly infection for Asian Elephants. While generally benign in African Elephants, Asian Elephants can develop fatal hemorrhages. The fatality rate is a whopping 80 percent, making it one of the most serous threats to elephant populations outside of humans.

Anti-viral drugs have some effect on the disease, but two-thirds show no improvement. This has led to a search for a vaccine. For 15 years, the Houston Zoo and Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology have partnered to develop the drug. They have been helped by worldwide research from zoos and animal specialists, as well as graduate student Jessica Watts and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Houston's Texas Children’s Hospital. The research has been funded by private donations, research partnerships, and grants.

Before being inoculated, the mRNA vaccine was exhaustively tested, with the dosage being extrapolated from data involving horses.

Houston Zoo veterinarians will periodically test Tess to see if she is developing the appropriate antibodies. If she is and there are no adverse reactions, the next step will be to administer the vaccine to the rest of the Houston herd. Many of these are Tess’s own children (Tucker, Tupelo, Tilly, and Teddy) and grandchildren (Winnie).

Should the vaccine prove effective, the doses will be made available worldwide to zoos and private elephant sanctuaries. It is likely to have a significant benefit on protecting and preserving the Asian Elephant population. As of January, there are fewer than 50,000 of the animas left in the wild. They are currently listed as endangered, and breeding programs and research done through the Houston Zoo are essential to keeping the animals from going extinct.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New study says Houston is best city to grow business

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The Bayou City has again received recognition as a top hub for business.

According to a new study by business revenue experts The RevOps Team, Houston is one of the cities in the US with 10 or more companies listed in the S&P 500, and has been named as the number one city with the fastest growing businesses in the U.S. Houston scored the highest Average Business Growth (ABG) at 26.7 percent. The business experts divided the data from the S&P 500 Index to see what businesses had the highest share-price growth in the last year.

Out of the 28 states and the cities with 10 or more businesses listed in the S&P 500, Houston was No. 1t for growing businesses with Atlanta, in second place with 15 companies listed and reaching an ABG of 24.2 percent. Two cities in Texas ranked in the top five with Dallas taking third place at 14.9 percent.

Texas ranked fifth place overall in the top five states for business growth with high-performing businesses like Vistra. Vistra was the company with the highest growth in Texas at 277.68 percent, followed by NRG Energy (NRG) with 170.43 percent and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) at 69.13 percent.

“You need to be ready to both leverage opportunity and adapt to challenges,” Kerri Linsenbigler of RevOps Team said in a news release. “Growing a business wherever you are in the U.S. is not for the faint-hearted, and business owners in Texas will be proud that they have ranked highly in the top five.”

Earlier this month, over a dozen Houston-based companies madeU.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

In December, the city was ranked among the 25 best metropolitan areas to start a small business in a report by personal finance website The Credit Review placed Houston in the No. 22 spot.