News from NASA and space-focused startups trended in 2020. Photo via Pexels

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the space innovation news — whether that be new NASA hires or startup news — in the Space City, five stories trended among readers.

Houston-area space tech startup gets upgraded control center

A Houston-based company that's on a mission to the moon has a new control center. Photo via Jesus Motto/Savills

A space tech startup based in Clear Lake, just outside of Houston, has a new office that's going to help them take their technology out of this world.

Intuitive Machines, an engineering firm specializing in automation and aerospace, has upgraded its Houston-area control center. The company has moved into a 22,300-square-foot space on the sixth floor of a building located at 3700 Bay Area Road. The lease was executed last fall. London-based Savills had a Houston team to represent the tenant and oversee project management of the buildout.

"I was proud to work on the build-out for Intuitive Machines during such an exciting time in its history," says Savills associate director, David Finklea, in a news release. "As Intuitive is a leader in the aerospace space field, we created an environment that is far from the industry standard and complements its innovative endeavors. The design is bright and contemporary, with a relaxing and airy feel that imitates the illusion of being in space."

Currently, Intuitive Machines is working on NASA's Artemis Program and has been granted $77 million from the organization to launch a flight to the moon next year. In light of this project, Intuitive Machines needed a larger, optimized space to support its growing team. Click here to continue reading.

NASA names new leader to Houston-based human space flight arm

Kathy Lueders will lead the future of human space flight at NASA. Photo via nasa.gov

NASA has named its new head of human space flight — a department based out of Houston's Johnson Space Center.

Kathy Lueders, formerly the commercial crew program manager, has been named associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Friday, June 12.

"Kathy gives us the extraordinary experience and passion we need to continue to move forward with Artemis and our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024," says Bridenstine in a news release. "She has a deep interest in developing commercial markets in space, dating back to her initial work on the space shuttle program."

Lueders has been with NASA for over 12 years — spending time at both JSC and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Click here to continue reading.

Space City News: Houston passed over for military HQ, Rice forms new partnerships

Catch up on space news — from new partnerships at Rice University and the latest snub for the Space City. Photo via NASA.gov

It's been a busy few days for space news, and in Houston — the Space City — it's all relevant to the continued conversation of technology and innovation.

With so much going on — from Houston being passed over for the Space Command's headquarters and Rice receiving $1.4 million in federal funds for a new hub — here's what you may have missed in space news. Click here to continue reading.

Overheard: NASA administrator shares Houston's potential as a commercial space hub

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine joined the Greater Houston Partnership for the State of Space online event this week. Photo via NASA.gov

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its inaugural State of Space event featuring a keynote address by Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, that touched on the many ongoing projects at Houston's Johnson Space Center.

The online event, which also featured speeches from GHP President Bob Harvey and JSC Mark Geyer, took place Tuesday, December 15, for GHP members and nonmembers alike.

In his address, Bridenstine discussed the commercialization of space, how politics have affected the agency's history, and the exciting projects underway — including returning man to the moon. Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event. Click here to continue reading.

Tech startup lands in Houston to help space support services take off

Eric Ingram and Sergio Gallucci of SCOUT are focused on creating data-driven solutions to space technology management to save companies billions and prevent space debris. Photos courtesy of SCOUT

A Virginia-based space company startup focusing on developing small and inexpensive satellites is making an out-of-this-world entrance in the Houston commercial innovation space.

SCOUT has been selected as part of the 2020 MassChallange's Texas in Houston cohort, a zero-equity startup accelerator, in the commercial space track and is planning a demonstration mission with the Johnson Space Center in 2021.

The startup, founded in 2019 by Eric Ingram and joined shortly after by Sergio Gallucci. Both have years of experience in innovative research and development, leading teams across academia, government, and industry. Their data will help manufacturers and operators extend satellite lifetimes, avoid failing satellites, reducing up to a billion dollars in losses.

"If we want further operate in space and grow our space presence overall," Eric Ingram, CEO-and-founder tells InnovationMap. "We need to have a safe environment to expand that presence so any time you have unchecked failures and space debris is a problem. We want to help take some of the riskiness out of space operations by providing data that doesn't already exist."

SCOUT provides a wide array of new products based on data to produce small and inexpensive satellites to perform in-space inspections of large and expensive satellites. Their data and spaceflight autonomy software helps spacecraft detect, identify, and refine models for observed objects to gather information and enable autonomous operations. Click here to continue reading.

Seven startups walked away with cash prizes from this year's MassChallenge accelerator program in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

MassChallenge Texas announces winners for its Houston cohort and doles out $200,000 in prizes

Startup champs

MassChallenge named its winners of its 2020 accelerator at a virtual event on October 22. The program awarded a total of $200,000 in equity-free prizes across seven startups from its second Houston cohort.

This year's program took place completely virtually due to the pandemic. Already, the 56 startups involved in the cohort have raised $44.4 million funding, generated $24 million in revenue, and created 297 jobs, says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in a news release.

"This has been a year full of change, to say the least," he says. "But startups thrive in uncertain times — because they can move fast and remain agile, they are able quickly meet each new need that arises. I'm extremely proud of the startups in our 2020 cohort — during the course of the program, they've pivoted, adjusted, and evolved in order to grow their businesses."

The startups that won across the Houston cohort included Houston-based PATH EX Inc., which won the $100,000 Diamond Award, is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through an unique pathogen extraction platform.

Four companies won $25,000 Gold Awards:

  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.

Two companies won the Sidecar Awards, securing each a $25,000 Innospark Artificial Intelligence Prize.

  • Articulate Labs, based in Dallas, makes mobile, adaptive devices to help knee osteoarthritis and knee replacement patients rehabilitate on the go during everyday activity.
  • Houston-based Starling Medical has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.
The Houston Angel Network awarded Ozark Integrated Circuits their prize of $50,000.
"The progress these entrepreneurs made in just a few months has all of the hope, drama, anticipation, and optimism of seeing dawn break after a particularly difficult night," says Wogbe Ofori, Principal at 360Approach and a MassChallenge mentor, in the release. "It's fulfilling, actually, and makes me proud to be a MassChallenge mentor."
The seven startups were awarded alongside 27 other startups from this year's Austin, Boston, and Rhode Island accelerators at the virtual event. The event was hosted by Chris Denson of Innovation Crush, and featured a fireside chat between Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director at the Boston Globe.
Earlier this fall, MassChallenge named its 10 startup finalists, whittled down from 56 from 13 countries and 13 states to its first-ever virtual accelerator, which began in June.

"In the face of great uncertainty, MassChallenge Texas in Houston charged forward and did exactly what they ask their startups to do: love the problem," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "The successful pivot to virtual is a testament to the strength of their global community and the motivation of the Houston ecosystem to get behind new ideas and create businesses that will set roots and grow here.

"As one of the most innovative cities, Houston is a place where startups can thrive – even in the midst of a pandemic. Programs like MassChallenge provide the best practices and networks to ensure startups get the access they need to create sustainable businesses and lasting change."

These are the 10 finalists heading to MassChallenge's virtual awards program next month. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge Texas names its top 10 companies in its Houston cohort

best of the rest

Boston-based MassChallenge has named its top picks from its second Houston cohort ahead of its awards event. This year's programming, due to the pandemic, was held completely online.

"Great entrepreneurs don't let a crisis go to waste: this cohort was assembled from virtually every industry across 13 different countries and through the twists and turns, their passion became a beacon for the future," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston. "These top startups represent the best qualities of all of us: resilient, ingenious, and able to push ourselves further than we think we are capable. They embody the entrepreneurial spirit that brings hope and progress to society."

The 10 companies — which represent the top 18 percent of the cohort — will now compete in a final round of judging for up to $250,000 in equity-free cash prizes. The winners will be revealed at the 2020 MassChallenge Virtual U.S. Awards, which will be held online.

The 2020 MassChallenge Texas in Houston top 10 finalists are:

  • B2B Pay, based in Helsinki, Finland, is a fintech startup with a multi-bank platform.
  • FloodFrame, based in Richmond just outside of Houston, is a self-deploying flood protection system that can be easily installed to existing houses.
  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Houston-based Integricote uses nanotechnology research that originated from the University of Houston in the treatment and fortification of materials like wood and concrete.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • Houston-based PATH EX Inc. is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through a pathogen extraction platform.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.
  • Sunnydale, California-based Sizzle is using artificial intelligence to automatically create gaming highlights for the billion gaming viewers.
  • Starling Medical, based in Houston, has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.

The 54-company cohort, which is the second based in Houston since the program's launch last year, was challenged early on — much like the other MassChallenge cohorts — to pivot to virtual acceleration over the four-month experience.

Robert Pieroni, director of Economic Development for Central Houston, which was part of the group that worked to bring MCTX to Houston, says he sees a need for this type of accelerator now more than ever.

"MassChallenge's work sources ground-breaking ideas from around the world and invites them into an inclusive village surrounded by a network of tools, resources, and opportunities that help founders accelerate and scale their business to solve humankind's boldest challenges head-on," he says. "The addition of virtual and the rise of distributed teams in response to the pandemic will make it easier for startups to launch and build businesses anywhere."

MassChallenge's Houston cohort will be one of a few featured at the virtual awards event on October 22 at 4 p.m. Headliners for the event include Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of the Boston Globe, and Chris Denson of Innovation Crush will be the host. For more information about the event and to register, visit the MassChallenge website.

Eric Ingram and Sergio Gallucci of SCOUT are focused on creating data-driven solutions to space technology management to save companies billions and prevent space debris. Photos courtesy of SCOUT

Tech startup lands in Houston to help space support services take off

space tech

A Virginia-based space company startup focusing on developing small and inexpensive satellites is making an out-of-this-world entrance in the Houston commercial innovation space.

SCOUT has been selected as part of the 2020 MassChallange's Texas in Houston cohort, a zero-equity startup accelerator, in the commercial space track and is planning a demonstration mission with the Johnson Space Center in 2021.

The startup, founded in 2019 by Eric Ingram and joined shortly after by Sergio Gallucci. Both have years of experience in innovative research and development, leading teams across academia, government, and industry. Their data will help manufacturers and operators extend satellite lifetimes, avoid failing satellites, reducing up to a billion dollars in losses.

"If we want further operate in space and grow our space presence overall," Eric Ingram, CEO-and-founder tells InnovationMap. "We need to have a safe environment to expand that presence so any time you have unchecked failures and space debris is a problem. We want to help take some of the riskiness out of space operations by providing data that doesn't already exist."

SCOUT provides a wide array of new products based on data to produce small and inexpensive satellites to perform in-space inspections of large and expensive satellites. Their data and spaceflight autonomy software helps spacecraft detect, identify, and refine models for observed objects to gather information and enable autonomous operations.

The space startup's observation and comprehension capabilities creates data products for customers, such as Spacecraft Sensor Suites and Satellite Inspections. The former is a sensor suite under current development to enable a new way to monitor satellites in space while the latter consists of their small satellites that can enable on-demand and on-site inspections for space assets.

This, according to Ingram, is changing the paradigm of operational risk in space.

"If we are able to better understand how these satellites age over time and diagnose problems before they become catastrophic failures," says Ingram "We can prevent space debris from even happening. The more safety and responsibility in space, the better it is for everyone to increase their technology and investment in what is a very rapidly growing industry."

Lost satellites tend to happen often, resulting in about $300 million lost in hardware and around $40 million annual revenue gone. Spacecrafts in outer space can be part of many unpredictable interactions that can be difficult to trace including solar activity, thermal, mechanical wear, and outgassing.

SCOUT will focus the rest of the year in growing their company, despite the setbacks caused by the coronavirus. Their priority is to meet their fundraising and technical milestones while engaging in strategic partnerships with satellite industry players.

"The space industry is growing and is becoming a more realistic and viable avenue for business growth and investment," says Ingram. "Houston is a diverse city with innovation at every front and the effort that NASA is going through to aid the commercial space industry, combined with the startup accelerators that there is a lot of adjacent opportunities and overlap in capabilities."

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.