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.

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

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Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

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Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

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One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

Network

A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

Employee Referrals

When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

Alternative Candidates

In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

Contingent Workforce

Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

Internal Talent

Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.