Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby (pictured), senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3. Photo via the White House

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Rigby was honored for her work on leading NASA’s transformational space telescope.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release.

Rigby has published 160 peer-reviewed publications. She has been recognized with various awards like NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the Fred Kavli Prize Plenary Lecture from the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and the 2022 LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year from Out to Innovate. Currently, she is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Part of Rigby’s Medal of Freedom honor is due to her role in the success of NASA’s Webb mission. Webb is considered the most powerful space telescope, which launched on Dec. 25, 2021.

“I am proud Ellen and Jane are recognized for their incredible roles in NASA missions, for sharing the power of science with humanity, and inspiring the Artemis Generation to look to the stars,” says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in the release. “Among her many accomplishments as a veteran astronaut and leader, Ellen served as the second female director of Johnson, flew in space four times, and logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. Jane is one of the many wizards at NASA who work every day to make the impossible possible. The James Webb Space Telescope represents the very best of scientific discovery that will continue to unfold the secrets of our universe. We appreciate Ellen and Jane for their service to NASA, and our country.”

Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis was one of six involved in a remote surgery in space demonstration. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

Houston surgeon takes part in first-of-its-kind surgery in space

remote control health care

A small surgical robot at the International Space Station completed its first surgery demo in zero gravity last week, and one of the surgeons tasked with the remote robotic operations on simulated tissue was Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis.

Voloyiannis took part in what is being referred to as “surgery in space” by being one of the six doctors remotely controlling spaceMIRA — Miniaturized In Vivo Robotic Assistant — that performed several operations on simulated tissue at the lab located in the space station. The surgeons operated remotely from earth in Lincoln, Nebraska. The remote surgeons worked to control the robot's hands to provide tension to the simulated tissue made of rubber bands. They then used the other hand to dissect the elastic tissue with scissors.

“I said during the procedure ‘it was a small rubber band cut, but a great leap for surgery,’“ Voloyiannis tells InnovationMap. “This was a huge milestone for me personally in my career.”

The robot was developed by Virtual Incision Corporation, and made possible through a partnership between NASA and the University of Nebraska. The team of surgeons took part in a demonstration that is considered a common surgical task, as they dissected the correct piece of tissue under pressure.

Latency is the time delay between when the command is sent and the robot receives it, and that was the big challenge the team faced. The delay was about 0.85 of a second according to what the colorectal surgeon who worked on spaceMIRA Dr. Michael Jobst said to CNN. The demo overall was a success according to the team, and posed a new-found adrenaline rush due to the groundbreaking innovation.

“The excitement of the new and the unknown,” Voloyiannis says on the feeling of doing the first operation of its kind. “I never thought I’d be doing something like this when I was in training and in medical school.”

Voloyiannis serves as the chairman of colon and rectal surgery for The US Oncology Network. He was chosen for this experiment due to his experience and expertise performing robotic colorectal surgery. Voloyiannis and the developers are hopeful that this type of technology will soon allow doctors to perform this specialized robotic surgery on patients living in rural areas without a specialized surgeon nearby, military battlefields, as well as regularly in space one day.

“The same concept of remote surgery regularly in space could certainly be entertained,” Voloyiannis says. “When you do things with an absence of gravity and perform a surgery in that environment — of course that changes the way we do things. When you have an absence of gravity with bodily fluids, it is a very hard surgery, but with partial gravity that idea can be entertained.

"Remotely, internet connectivity would have to be considered and you’d have someone remote like me here, while potentially there you’d have someone with less training doing the procedure there guiding the robot," he continues. "It’s quite the concept though.”

The doctors had to account for nearly a second of delay in connectivity. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

Houston-based Eden Grow Systems hopes to disrupt the agtech industry and revolutionize — and localize — produce. Photo via edengrowsystems.com

Houston startup with next-gen farming tech calls for crowdfunding as it plans to grow

seeing green

Whether it’s on Mars or at the kitchen table, entrepreneur Bart Womack wants to change what and how you eat.

But the CEO and founder of next-generation farming startup Eden Grow Systems is seeking crowdfunders to help feed the venture.

The company evokes images of a garden paradise on earth. But the idea behind the Houston-based NASA spinoff came from a more pragmatic view of the world. Womack’s company sells indoor food towers, self-contained, modular plant growth systems built on years of research by NASA scientists looking for the best way to feed astronauts in space.

The company has launched a $1.24 million regulated crowdfunding campaign to raise the money it needs to scale and expand manufacturing outside the current location in Washington state.

Additionally, the U.S. Air Force recently chose Eden as a food source for the U.S. Space Force base on remote Ascension Island, in the Atlantic Ocean, Womack tells InnovationMap. Another project with Space Center Houston is also in the works.

“We want to be the government and DOD contractor for these kind of next-generation farming systems,” he says.

The Houston-based company includes former NASA scientists, like recent hire Dr. L. Marshall Porterfield, of Purdue University, as an innovation advisor.

Womack, a former digital marketer, Houston public channel show host, night club owner and entertainment entrepreneur, left those ventures in 2012, after the birth of his first child. While taking a year to study trends research, in 2014, what he read intrigued and alarmed him.

“I’ll never forget, I came across a report from Chase Manhattan Bank….of the top 10 disruptive investment sectors, over the next decade,” he says. “At the very top of the list was food.”

Bart Womack founded Eden Grow Systems in 2017. Photo courtesy

His conclusions on the fragility of the world’s food supply system, due to overpopulation, and scarcer land, led him to launch Eden in 2017, funded by venture capital firm SpaceFund, Womack, his family, friends and angel investors.

Womack believes “black swan” events will only increase, disrupting the food supply system and further jeopardizing food supplies.

“We’re going to enter a period of hyper novelty in history,” Womack says.. "The system we’ve built for the last 100 years, the super optimized system, is going to begin to break apart."

To avert a centralized food production outcome, operated by corporate giants like Amazon or Walmart, Womack’s vision offers a decentralized alternative, leaving it in local hands.

With $2 million put into the company so far and a half million-dollars in sales last year, Womack argues that Eden has achieved much and can make food independence within reach for everyday families.

The company commercialized NASA technology to fill what it viewed as “a huge gap within the controlled…agricultural space.”

The tower is the building block of a modular, automated and vertical indoor plant growth system, with calibrated misting, fans, and LED lighting, controlled by an app.

The company website touts the towers as an easy way to grow plants like lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes, with little water, no soil, and lots of air, without the expense and work of cultivating an earth-based garden.

For those who want to eat more than greens, the towers provide a way to breed fish and shrimp in an aquaponic version, recycling fish waste as plant fertilizer.

However, big plans come with big costs. The towers range in price from $5,000 to $7,000, although payment plans for those who qualify make it affordable.

Eden has sold around 100 of their towers so far, to a variety of customers. But rising costs and shipping delays have led to a a three-month backlog.

The manufacturing and shipping associated with larger installations means that even if the company made a million-dollar sale, delivery of the product would take a year.

“One of the hardest things…as a start-up, the last couple of years, is trying to narrow down exactly where the biggest payback is,” Womack says. “There is the lower hanging fruit, of small sales to individual buyers, but there’s the larger fruit of institutional buyers. But they can take months and years to convert into an actual buyer.”

Customers include several universities, including Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University, and talks are underway with other large academic institutions.

For now, attracting investors so the company can reach its funding goal poses the biggest challenge.

“Texas investors are very, very hard-nosed, and they’re not like West Coast investors. They want to understand exactly how they’re going to get their money back, and exactly how quickly,” he says.

Womack says the crowdfunding round would allow the company to expand manufacturing operations into Houston, deliver product faster, and invest in advertising.

“When we complete this round, and become completely self sufficient, we’re planning on moving to a $25 million valuation,” Womack says. “We can show, given money, we can scale the company.”

The city of Nassau Bay, next to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, has purchased towers and plans to purchase more, not for the production of food, but to grow ornamental flowers.

Womack says that city officials there found that it’s cheaper to grow the decorative plants themselves, rather than buying them.

The towers are adaptable, and can grow not only food but cannabis and other plants, and if buyers want to use them other purposes, that adds to the product’s appeal, Womack says.

Eden has also sold some towers to Harris County Precinct 2 and the city of Houston, as part of a project he says will turn food deserts throughout the area into “food prosperity zones.”

“Our goal is to be the farming equivalent of Boeing,” Womack says.

The new facility will be key to innovating across the Artemis missions. Photo courtesy of NASA and UTEP

NASA debuts digital design lab in Houston

future of engineering

NASA has opened a new center in Houston that's dedicated to digital space innovation for the future of spaceflight.

The Digital Engineering Design Center has recently opened in NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The facility is equipping the aerospace engineering community with skills and processes for digital designing that can build, test, and refine innovations before the manufacturing and assembling process in order to to test them.

“The DEDC will help prepare a modern American aerospace workforce by equipping it with valuable skills in digital engineering and encourage even more students to become engineers,” says Julie Kramer White, director of engineering at NASA Johnson, in a news release. “Collaborations like this one show we are committed to having the most talented, diverse, and motivated engineers that can continue to meet the exploration goals of the agency.”

Julie Kramer White, engineering director at NASA Johnson, delivered a speech at the DEDC ribbon cutting ceremony at NASA Johnson. Photo courtesy of James Blair/NASA

Digital engineering has many benefits to NASA, including reduced risk and cost, streamlined development schedule, and the ability to work with experts remotely.

NASA’s DEDC program is operated by the University of Texas at El Paso Aerospace Center. The partnership, which was celebrated at JSC and UTEP simultaneously, is also a part of a collaboration with Johnson’s Engineering Directorate and the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

The enrolled engineers and students will work on NASA projects related to in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU, which is a type of engineering that utilizes materials native to space.

ISRU is a key focus of the Artemis missions to the Moon and Mars. The engineers from NASA will be the ISRU experts, while UTEP professors will contribute their digital engineering software expertise.

Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer of TRISH, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston innovator on the importance of commercial missions for the future of space health research

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 189

With the rise of commercial space flight, researchers have increased access to space health data that's key to the future of the industry as a whole. The organization that's conducting this valuable research is based right in Houston's Texas Medical Center.

TRISH, or the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, is an organization based out of Baylor College of Medicine and partnered with NASA's Human Spaceflight group. As commercial space companies have emerged, TRISH has strategically aligned with these businesses to bring back health data from the civilian trips.

“Most of the research that’s done at NASA and other government agencies usually takes decades to get something that could be implemented in space or terrestrially," Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer for TRISH, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we do at TRISH is something different.

"On the one hand, we look at really new technologies that are just an idea, but could be really game changing," he continues. "Then on the other hand, we look at technologies already in the market that could be tweaked to work in spaceflight.”

Since 2021, TRISH has conducted its research on four missions — Inspiration4, the first all-civilian mission to space; Axiom Mission 1, the first all civilian mission to the International Space Station; MS20, which flew two Japanese civilians to ISS; and, most recently, Axiom Mission 2, which included the first all-private crew commanded by a woman and two members of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's national astronaut program.

“We really saw the value of implementing research in civilians because they are different from your traditional government astronaut,” Urquieta says. “In civilians, you see a more diverse population.”

Urquieta says TRISH's experiments on these missions all fall within a few pillars of space health, including space's effects on sensory motor skills, like balance and motion sickness, as well as mental health, environmental data from the vehicles, vital monitoring, and more.

“We’ve developed a capability to collect high-priority, high-value data from these space flight participants without having to train them for long periods of time — which is a challenge, because they don’t train for years like traditional astronauts,” he explains.

The plan, Urquieta says, is to be able to share TRISH's space health data in order to more safely send humans into space. He shares more about TRISH's program and the challenges the organization faces on the show. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Little Place Labs, which provides near-real-time space analytics for both ground and space-based applications, secured a spot in the AWS Space Accelerator. Image via Getty Images

Houston startup secures spot in AWS space tech program

out-of-this-world tech

Just 14 space global startups were selected for Amazon Web Services 2023 AWS Space Accelerator, including one representing the Space City.

Little Place Labs, co-founded in 2020 at Oxford by Houstonian and CEO Bosco Lai, has been selected by AWS Space Accelerator. The mentorship program helps startups advance space solutions using the cloud to help develop next-gen space technology. generation of exciting space technology.

Little Place Labs aims to build space tech solutions to “make the world a better place.” They do this by providing near-real-time space analytics for both ground and space-based applications.

“Being a Houston based company is highly significant in the context of the AWS Space Accelerator program," Lai tells InnovationMap. “Houston's rich legacy in space exploration, with institutions like NASA's Johnson Space Center and its expertise in space-related fields, makes it an ideal location for companies involved in the space industry. Little Place Labs is proud to represent the city's hub of talent and innovation, which is crucial as the space sector evolves and establishes dynamic collaborations between government and commercial entities.”

One of Little Place Labs recent initiatives is a joint venture and license agreement to use Exodus Orbitals Software Development Kit for development of the commercial application in remote sensing domain. This project, expected to launch this year on a satellite mission, will allow access to space-based capabilities and observation of Earth via advanced machine learning algorithms.

The participants involved in AWS Space Accelerator will receive business development and strategy support, specialized training, mentoring, up to $100,000 in AWS Promotional Credit through the AWS Activate program, and a curriculum that also provides opportunities to work with AWS customers and AWS Partner Network that are seeking new, creative space solutions.Little Place Labs believe they have their own place in this space.

“We stand out from most in our cohort and other space companies due to our expertise and focus on software solutions,” Lai said. “As a revolutionary software company, we specialize in delivering near-real-time space analytics for both ground and space-based applications.

"Our belief is rooted in the notion that with the ongoing improvements and maturity of space infrastructure and hardware, along with the increasing availability of space data, advanced software has become the next essential phase. As famously predicted by Marc Andreessen, who stated that ‘software is eating the world,’ software companies like ours are poised to disrupt and transform industries by powering hardware solutions and extracting impactful analytics from data.”

Little Place Labs was founded by CEO Bosco Lai. Photo via littleplace.com

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.