NASA technology is up for grabs and InnovationMap has a new podcast — here are some innovators to know this week. Courtesy photos

Another Monday means another weekly roundup of who's who in Houston innovation.

This week, we have our first Houston Innovators Podcast guest to feature, as well as a NASA expert who wants to loan you space technology.

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas

Courtesy of MassChallenge

On our first episode of the new Houston Innovators Podcast, we discuss Houston accelerators with Jon Nordby, managing director for MassChallenge Texas. The first Houston program launched this year, and, as the organization looks toward its next cohort, the Houston innovation ecosystem is evolving in front of our eyes.

To read more about Nordby and MassChallenge, click here to read the story and listen to the podcast.

Sara Kelly, founder of Rigby

Courtesy of Rigby

Sara Kelly thinks you shouldn't have to get married or buy a house to have a nice dish set. She created Rigby, a Houston-based direct-to-consumer tableware company that is flipping the script on dishes.

"The reaction to the brand and the product has been great," says Kelly. "It's been so exciting for me to see that. At this point, we're focused on organic growth since we're so new."

Click here to read more about Rigby.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Steven Gonzalez's job is to move NASA technology out into the world. The Johnson Space Center has hundreds of technology applications and IPs, and so much more can be done with those ideas here on earth. In a guest column for InnovationMap, Gonzalez writes of the NASA Johnson Space Center Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office, which will loan technology licenses to startups for free for three years.

"New technologies have been researched, developed, and proven on the ground — as well as above the earth on the International Space Station — in fields including medical, communications, agriculture, manufacturing, materials, structures, and much more," he writes. "At NASA's JSC, we are proud of the exceptional innovators who continue to develop technologies that advance the space program and technology for society on our home planet, and we love to share our knowledge."

Click here to read more about the program.

This isn't your grandmother's tableware company. Courtesy of Rigby

This female-founded Houston startup is shaking up tableware design

Dishing on dishes

A good tableware set comes into your life once in a lifetime — and usually that occasion is from a wedding registry. But a Houston entrepreneur wants to change that way of thinking.

Sara Kelly created her direct-to-consumer tableware brand called Rigby, which features handcrafted stoneware dishes, glassware, and a flatware line.

"With Rigby I want to encourage individuals in all life stages to feel at home with the present," says Kelly in a news release. "You shouldn't feel like you have to wait for a big lifetime event, like getting married or buying a house, to purchase tableware and other items that make your time at home more enjoyable."

Kelly, founder, tells InnovationMap that as a single professional she felt disconnected from the tableware industry, which she says is focused on wedding registries and unrealistic entertaining. After realizing that her friends felt the same way, Kelly saw an opportunity to start a business and the idea for Rigby was born in 2017. She launched the line just two years later in August.

"The reaction to the brand and the product has been great," says Kelly. "It's been so exciting for me to see that. At this point, we're focused on organic growth since we're so new."

The brand's pieces are crafted and hand-finished by professional craftspeople in Portugal. Kelly tells InnovationMap that she was inspired to source from the country following her travels in Europe where she purchased a few ceramic pieces. The company currently partners with three different factories across Portugal.

Drawn to the centuries-old heritage crafts of stoneware, glassware, and flatware production in Europe, Kelly tells InnovationMap that she knew that she wanted to partner with factories that incorporate a human touch into every step of the process.

Kelly, originally from the Southampton neighborhood in the Houston-area, moved back to the city six years ago. She tells InnovationMap that Houston's growing and supportive startup community was key to her decision to grow Ribgy into a national brand from the Lone Star state. Before launching Rigby, Kelly worked in product marketing for four years.

"Houston is a great market, and we're based here, so it's really important to me to have a presence in Houston," says Kelly. "Right now, I'm in the process of figuring out how the product can get in front of people here through pop-ups, and collaborations with other brands and influencers."

Rigby's stoneware includes mugs, dinner plates, salad plates, pasta bowls, and breakfast bowls, which are all available in off white, mint, charcoal-navy, and grey. Hand-blown glasses are available in a short and a tall design and each piece is unique. The 18/10 stainless steel flatware sets are available in polished stainless steel, satin black, satin gold, and satin copper finishes. Pricing for sets of four range from $48 to $64 for dishware, $56 to $64 for glassware, and $180 to $280 for flatware. Rigby's collection is available only online.

"I put a lot of thought into the design details of each piece and carefully considered how each piece feels in your hand," says Kelly. "The plates have an angled rim, which makes them easy to pick up and prevents food from spilling off the sides. The stoneware dishes feel substantial in your hand — not dainty or fragile — and stack on shelves nicely. Our flatware has a sleek, slightly rounded silhouette and feels comfortable when held. All of our items are dishwasher safe."

Kelly tells InnovationMap that Rigby's focus on craftsmanship and high quality products helps them stand out from their competitors. "We're also focused on people's real lives, so instead of the 'Instagram perfect' message, it's about how people live their lives everyday," says Kelly.

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Houston college lands $5M NASA grant to launch new aerospace research center

to infinity and beyond

The University of Houston was one of seven minority-serving institutions to receive a nearly $5 million grant this month to support aerospace research focused on extending human presence on the moon and Mars.

The $4,996,136 grant over five years is funded by the NASA Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) program. It will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems (IDEAS2) Center at UH, according to a statement from the university.

“The vision of the IDEAS2 Center is to become a premier national innovation hub that propels NASA-centric, state-of-the-art research and promotes 21st-century aerospace education,” Karolos Grigoriadis, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of aerospace engineering at UH, said in a statement.

Another goal of the grant is to develop the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Graduate, undergraduate and even middle and high school students will conduct research out of IDEAS2 and work closely with the Johnson Space Center, located in the Houston area.

The center will collaborate with Texas A&M University, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Stanford University.

Grigoriadis will lead the center. Dimitris Lagoudas, from Texas A&M University, and Olga Bannova, UH's research professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Space Architecture graduate program, will serve as associate directors.

"Our mission is to establish a sustainable nexus of excellence in aerospace engineering research and education supported by targeted multi-institutional collaborations, strategic partnerships and diverse educational initiatives,” Grigoriadis said.

Industrial partners include Boeing, Axiom Space, Bastion Technologies and Lockheed Martin, according to UH.

UH is part of 21 higher-education institutions to receive about $45 million through NASA MUREP grants.

According to NASA, the six other universities to received about $5 million MIRO grants over five years and their projects includes:

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Microplastics Research and Education Center
  • California State University in Fullerton: SpaceIgnite Center for Advanced Research-Education in Combustion
  • City University of New York, Hunter College in New York: NASA-Hunter College Center for Advanced Energy Storage for Space
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee: Integrative Space Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities for Workforce-Development in NASA Related Materials Research and Education
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark:AI Powered Solar Eruption Center of Excellence in Research and Education
  • University of Illinois in Chicago: Center for In-Space Manufacturing: Recycling and Regolith Processing

Fourteen other institutions will receive up to $750,000 each over the course of a three-year period. Those include:

  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada
  • Oklahoma State University in Stillwater
  • Iowa State University in Ames
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks
  • University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu
  • University of Idaho in Moscow
  • University of Arkansas in Little Rock
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City
  • Satellite Datastreams

NASA's MUREP hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event at Space Center Houston last month. Teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology. Click here to learn more about the seven finalists.

Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

by the numbers

One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."