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.

Fans can visit the lunar surface at Space Center Houston. Rendering courtesy of Space Center Houston

Space Center Houston blasts off with new, cutting-edge fan and research spaces and more on 30th anniversary

go for launch

In a town dubbed “Space City,” it takes a significant development to be dubbed a game changer in anything cosmic-related, but our favorite stellar destination has done so with some big developments.

Space Center Houston has revealed a new plan to address the ever-growing need for space exploration learning and training with two massive structures centering on our moon and Mars at its fan-favorite destination (1601 E NASA Pkwy.).

The new, appropriately dubbed Lunar Mars facility will gather guests, NASA, commercial space partners, colleges, universities, and global space agencies to collaborate on new technologies for present and future human spaceflight, per press materials.

Meanwhile, a new, elevated exhibit hall over the two surfaces will offer the public immersive experiences to observe astronaut training first-hand while experiencing the future of space exploration as humans return to the Moon and eventually on to Mars.

Specifically, the Lunar Mars facility will boast simulated surfaces of the moon and Mars, plus modular surface labs. According to Space Center Houston, these labs will design and test instruments and techniques for surface exploration, support testing lunar and Martian rovers on a one-mile indoor track, allow engineers and astronauts to practice working in reduced gravity, and conduct important emergency procedures.

From the earth to the moon in the new facility. Rendering courtesy of Space Center Houston

Guests can look forward to an immersive experience that allows viewing of astronaut training in-person, while also offering education on missions, challenges and benefits of the space industry.

“Imagine having a front row seat on the surface of the moon or Mars right here in Houston,” noted William T. Harris, the center’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Space Center Houston is recognized for providing meaningful, moving experiences about people and the courage, innovation and teamwork they use to expand the boundaries of what’s possible. We inspire our guests to connect with the significance of space exploration, to pursue their own path in space, or simply follow along as incredible feats of human spaceflight continue to bring joy and wonder to the world.”

A look at the massive new facilities. Rendering courtesy of Space Center Houston

More on that game-changing news: Space Center Houston also revealed a new logo/brand identity that the organization says in press materials represents the evolution of Space Center Houston and its future, and its mission to educate the public.

All this comes as part of a Facilities Master Plan and more plans to expand, which will be revealed in 2023.

Sound timing, as current estimates show that the global space industry is projected to grow nearly five times its current size by 2050. With 77 government space agencies currently operating around the globe, Texas boasts a key advantage as home to 17 of the world’s top 20 aerospace manufacturers, per the center.

Since its inception 30 years ago on October 16, 1992, the beloved Space Center Houston has seen more than 24 million starry-eyed guests enter its gates. Clearly, however, it’s time to rocket forward, as Houston and the nation, to quote President John F. Kennedy, choose to go to the moon, the Red Planet, and beyond.

“Space is expanding once again and a new space age is upon us,” Harris added. “With new ambitions, new players and new challenges, we will shift our focus from being a curator of past achievements to also facilitating new feats in space.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Local kids can pursue STEM and space dreams thanks to the generous gift. Photo courtesy of Space Center Houston

Jeff Bezos' foundation gifts Space Center Houston with $1 million grant

space funds

Billionaires such as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos may be blasting off into the beyond, but for now, space travel is still primarily relegated to the expert astronauts who train here in Houston.

Now, a new $1 million grant to our beloved hub of all things cosmic may just inspire local kids to rocket towards a career in space exploration or STEM careers. Space Center Houston has just received the generous, two-comma grant from Blue Origin, Bezos' company.

Blue Origin auctioned off seats on first crew New Shepard suborbital flight, which yielded an impressive $28 million. Bezos, his brother Mark, and Wally Funk, one of the Mercury 13 women will join the auction winner on the upcoming trip.

With the $28 million proceeds, Blue Origin then awarded $1 million to 19 organizations (each) through its foundation, Club for the Future.

"This donation is enabling Club for the Future to rapidly expand its reach by partnering with 19 organizations to develop and inspire the next generation of space professionals," said Bob Smith, Blue Origin CEO, in a statement. "Our generation will build the road to space and these efforts will ensure the next generation is ready to go even further."

The $1 million Space Center Houston received will go towards the center's Title 1 school field trip program, enabling students with access to the center's extensive space artifact collection, per a press release. Space Center Houston's Girls STEM Pathway initiative, which promotes learning experiences for girls in STEM careers, will also receive funds. The comprehensive, six-phase initiative includes an introductory elementary school experience, a middle school project-based STEM experience, a summer bridge program with mentoring support, and a program for high school girls to engage in scientific research, the center notes.

"Blue Origin's grant will further enable Space Center Houston to provide immersive science learning experiences for underserved Houston area youth," said the center's president and CEO, William T. Harris, in a release. "We are very thankful to Blue Origin for helping us inspire and prepare students for future STEM careers. With Blue Origin's support, we can empower students with hands-on STEM learning opportunities through the wonders of space exploration."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are coming home. Photo courtesy of NASA

Here's how to watch the historic NASA/SpaceX splashdown in Houston

return flight

On May 30, the world watched a historic — and uplifting — moment in space travel, as NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley blasted off from Earth in a commercial craft created by Elon Musk's SpaceX. The NASA/SpaceX Dragon Endeavour flight was the first launch with astronauts of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program.

The SpaceX Demo-2 launch was a success: the duo orbited Earth and eventually boarded the International Space Station; Behnken and Hurley have been stationed there since.''

Now, space fans can watch the return of the NASA/SpaceX Demo-2 test flight, which is scheduled for 1:42 pm CST on Sunday, August 2. The splashdown represents the first return of a commercially built and operated American spacecraft carrying astronauts from the space station, according to NASA. The historic return signifies the close of a mission designed to test SpaceX's human spaceflight system, including launch, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations.

The ever-popular Space Center Houston (the official visitor center of NASA's Johnson Space Center) will stream the live splashdown in a socially distanced event. Visitors can engage in interactive, pop-up science labs to learn about the splashdown process, the specially crafted spacesuits, and more.

To make it a full day of exploration, guests can walk underneath a flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which is the only Falcon 9 on public display outside of SpaceX's headquarters, and is the same type of rocket used in the Demo-2 mission.

Guests can also take a tour of the Independence Plaza exhibit and walk inside a shuttle replica mounted on top of the historic shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905. Myriad other experiences await; safety protocols will be in place.

Meanwhile, NASA will broadcast the splashdown coverage on NASA TV and the agency's website beginning early morning on August. 1, with coverage lasting through splashdown on August 2.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

It's a busy month in Houston. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for March

Where to be

Editor's note: SXSW has been canceled due to the coronavirus since the publishing on this events roundup. The original version of this article is below.

March is a busy month for Houston in general — but especially when it comes to innovation. The inaugural Houston Tech Rodeo starts out the month and the Rice Business Plan Competition closes out March in a few weeks — and the interactive weekend at SXSW falls right in the middle of the month for those planning the trip to Austin.

But for the Houston innovators in the energy industry, March got a little less busy when CERAWeek by IHS Markit was canceled due to the growing threat of the coronavirus, or COVID19.

Should any other events below have that same fate, this article will be updated.

March 2-6 — Houston Tech Rodeo

A week full of events, the Tech Rodeo is made up of over 30 innovation events across Houston. These are InnovationMap's picks for what to attend during the week. For a complete list of the events (most of which are free), head to the website.

Details: The event is from Monday, March 2, to Friday, March 6 across Houston. Learn more.

March 5 — Space Center Houston's Thought Leader Series: Designing for Human Performance

Learn how human factors engineering relates to spacecraft and spacesuit design while celebrating Women's History Month and the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station. Speakers include Celena Dopart, human factors engineer for Starliner at Boeing, and Katie Spira, NASA flight controller.

Details: The event is at 7 pm on Thursday, March 5, at Space Center Houston (1601 E NASA Pkwy). Learn more.

March 6 — Premier Talks: Women in Innovation & Technology 

Join this panel of accomplished women as they discuss the importance of being a woman in the current workforce and leading among your peers. Be empowered to self-evaluate, inspire those around you, and raise the bar on your professional goals. Discuss the challenges women face in a male dominated technology workforce and why it is important to take the limits off of your thinking.

Details: The event is from 9:15 to 11 am on Friday, March 6, at GA Houston (1301 Fannin St, Floor 21). Learn more.

March 6 — The Greater Houston Partnership’s Rise to the Top

Celebrating International Women's Day, the Greater Houston Partnership and the Partnership's Women's Business Alliance brings the Rise to the Top event. Expect a keynote address from Gretchen Watkins, president atShell Oil Company and executive vice president at Global Unconventionals, Shell Oil Company, and candid conversations from a panel of female executives discussing the challenges and triumphs of succeeding as a woman in today's business environment.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm on Friday, March 6, at Hilton Americas (1600 Lamar St.). Learn more.

March 10 — Equinor & Techstars Energy Accelerator Meet & Greet

If you're an energy-focused startup, don't miss this info session with the Equinor & Techstars Energy Accelerator, which is visiting Houston and looking for the 10 best energy companies for its next cohort.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Monday, March 10, at The Ion (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2440). Learn more.

March 10-11 — Energy 2.0: Equality, Environment, and the New Economy

Join over 100,000 people taking part in Energy 2.0 2020; an innovative experience that addresses new frontiers in the energy industry where business, workforce, environment, innovation, and policy intersect. Spread across multiple locations and continents, corporate watch sites around the globe, and simulcast online, Energy 2.0 brings energy professionals and a diverse mix of experts across various disciplines together for learning and networking opportunities.

Details: The event is from Monday, March 10, to Tuesday, March 11, online and at The Westin Houston, Memorial City (945 Gessner Rd.). Learn more.

March 12 — Lunch n' Learn: In Today's Market - Do Patents Even Matter?

Inventors and business professionals are asked to review the claims of their patent application before it is filed. This step is THE critical step that is supposed to ensure that the claims will protect their invention. The decision you make here determines if you will be part of the 97 percent of all patents that never recoup the cost of filing them.

Details: The event is from noon to 1:30 pm on Wednesday, March 12, at The Ion (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2440). Learn more.

March 19 — Science First: How 3D Printing is Reshaping the Future of Healthcare

Technology is evolving faster than ever – and advancements in 3D printing could revolutionize the delivery of healthcare products and solutions to change the trajectory of health for humanity.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 2 pm on Wednesday, March 19, at JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

March 24 — How to Form a Micro VC Fund Workshop at Mercury Fund

Welcoming all angels, previous founders, MBA students, aspiring and current venture capitalists that are interested in learning more about the basic essentials for starting a small venture fund. Speakers are Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund and Justin LaPoten of BADR Investments.

Details: The event is from 10 to 11 am on Tuesday, March 24, at Mercury Fund (3737 Buffalo Speedway, #Suite 1750). Learn more.

March 25 — 2020 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge - Startup Competition

The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge Startup Competition is Rice's newest entrepreneurship competition, awarding over $60,000 in prize money to Rice-affiliated teams. Students and alumni enter business ideas (high growth ventures or small business ideas) to compete.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Wednesday, March 25, at Liu Idea Lab For Innovation & Entrepreneurship (Rice University - Cambridge Office Building). Learn more.

March 26 — T3CH Workshop: Grow With Google "Using Data to Drive Business Growth"

In this T3CH workshop, you'll learn best practices on data-driven decision making; and get practical guidance on how to find and analyze trends regarding online customer engagement with your business, so you can turn those insights into well-informed, actionable decisions.

Details: The event is from noon to 1 pm on Thursday, March 26, at Impact Hub Houston @ The Cannon Post Oak (675 Bering Drive, #200). Learn more.

March 26-28 — Rice Business Plan Competition

The event — dubbed the "world's richest and largest student startup competition" — begins later this month. The Rice Business Plan Competition will host 42 student teams from all over the world. The three-day contest consists of pitches, judging, and a closing banquet where the winners are revealed.

Details: The event is from Thursday, March 26, to Saturday, March 28, at Rice University and the Hilton Americas. Learn more.

Mario Diaz, CEO of the Houston Airport System addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary this weekend. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: Aerospace and airport VIPs commemorate Space City Month at IAH

Out of this world

Houston, we have liftoff of a space-filled weekend. Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, and that calls for a celebration, as well as a commemoration.

Houston First, Space Center Houston, NASA, and United Airlines teamed up to host an international delegation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal C on July 17. Various space or Space City VIPs took the stage to discuss their memories of the lunar landing and the role Houston played in the monumental event.

“Our hope is to be an airport system that reflects Houston’s role as a leader on the global stage and to have our city standing as truly international business and cultural center. With both Bush and Hobby airports having earned four-star ratings, we are built to meet those expectations.”

— Mario Diaz, executive director at Houston Airport System. Bush Intercontinental Airport is also celebrating its 50th anniversary since opening in 1969.

“It is the innovative spirit of the people of this city that help give the world our new perspective. We are all neighbors, and we must all face the future as one. How wonderful that understanding is now with Houston having become the nation’s most diverse city in the country with one in four Houstonians being foreign born.”

— Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing a ranking released earlier this year.

“This week, we are celebrating this anniversary and time when we did so much more than we thought we could. … [the Apollo mission] was an inspiration to us then, and I think continues to be an inspiration to all of us even now.”

Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the United States for her 665 days in space.

“Houston is the Space City, because the Johnson Space Center is the home of human space flight. As you know, ‘Houston’ was the very first word spoken from the surface of the moon. And, it wasn’t a fluke. They knew who they needed to talk to, and it was Houston.”

— Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“In roughly three years, we will have astronauts back in the region of the moon — this time women and men. And soon after that, back onto the surface of the moon again in our mission called Artemis.”

— Geyer continues to say of NASA's lunar exploration plans.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Space Center Houston] inaugurated the completely restored mission control operations room from the Apollo era. We’ve done a restoration and taken it back to the 1960s, and it appears as if the flight controllers just got up to take a break.”

— William Harris, CEO of Space Center Houston. The organization is NASA's official tourism arm and houses 250,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space.

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.