Here's what Houston tech and startup news trended this year on InnovationMap in space tech. Image via Getty Images

Editor's note: As the year comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In the Space City, there were dozens of space tech stories, from a space tech company reaching unicorn status to another completing its IPO. Here are five Houston space tech-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Local university gets green light to launch new building at Houston Spaceport

City of Houston has entered into an agreement with Texas Southern University to develop an aviation program at the Houston Spaceport. Photo via fly2houston.com

With a financial boost from the City of Houston, the aviation program at Texas Southern University will operate an aeronautical training hub on a two-acre site at Ellington Airport.

The Houston Airport System — which runs Ellington Airport, George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Hobby Airport, and Houston Spaceport — is chipping in as much as $5 billion to build the facility, which will train aeronautical professionals.

On May 3, the Houston City Council authorized a five-year agreement between the airport system and TSU to set up and operate the facility. Continue reading the full story from May.

Houston space tech startup closes deal to IPO

Intuitive Machines will be listed on Nasdaq beginning February 14. Photo via intuitivemachines.com

It's official. This Houston company is live in the public market.

Intuitive Machines, a space tech company based in Southeast Houston, announced that it has completed the transaction to merge with Inflection Point Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company traded on Nasdaq.

“We are excited to begin this new chapter as a publicly traded company,” says Steve Altemus, co-founder, president, and CEO of Intuitive Machines, in a news release. “Intuitive Machines is in a leading position to replace footprints with a foothold in the development of lunar space. With our launch into the public sphere through Inflection Point, we have reached new heights financially and opened the doors for even greater exploration and innovation for the progress of humanity.”

The transaction, which was originally announced in September, was approved by Inflection Point’s shareholders in a general meeting on February 8. As a result of the deal, the company will receive around $55 million of committed capital from an affiliate of its sponsor and company founders, the release states. Continue reading the full story from February.

Houston to host 6 Italian aerospace companies with new program

Six Italian companies are coming to the Space City to accelerate their businesses thanks to a new program. Photo via nasa.gov

It's an Italian invasion in Houston — and it's happening in the name of accelerating innovation within aerospace.

For the first time, Italy has announced an international aerospace-focused program in the United States. The Italian Trade Agency and Italian Space Agency will partner with Space Foundation to launch Space It Up, an initiative that will accelerate six companies in Houston.

“The launch of Space It Up marks a pivotal moment in our ongoing commitment to nurturing innovation and facilitating global partnerships," Fabrizio Giustarini, Italian Trade Commissioner of Houston, says in a news release. "This program serves as a testament to the collaborative spirit that defines the aerospace industry. It represents the convergence of Italian ingenuity and Houston's esteemed legacy in space exploration, setting the stage for unprecedented advancements." Continue reading the full story from August.

Houston space tech startup raises $350M series C, clinches unicorn status

Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini (right) has announced the company's series C round with support from Aljazira Capital, led by CEO Naif AlMesned. Photo courtesy of Axiom Space

Houston has another unicorn — a company valued at $1 billion or more — thanks to a recent round of funding.

Axiom Space released the news this week that it's closed its series C round of funding to the tune of $350 million. While the company didn't release its valuation, it confirmed to Bloomberg that it's over the $1 billion threshold. Axiom reports that, according to available data, it's now raised the second-most funding of any private space company in 2023 behind SpaceX.

Saudi Arabia-based Aljazira Capital and South Korea-based Boryung Co. led the round. To date, Axiom has raised over $505 million with $2.2 billion in customer contracts, according to the company.

“We are honored to team with investors like Aljazira Capital, Boryung and others, who are committed to realizing the Axiom Space vision,” Axiom Space CEO and president Michael Suffredini says in a news release. “Together, we are working to serve innovators in medicine, materials science, and on-orbit infrastructure who represent billions of dollars in demand over the coming decade. Continue reading the full story from August.

Texas university to build $200M space institute in Houston

Texas A&M University will build a new facility near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo courtesy of JSC

Texas A&M University's board of regents voted to approve the construction of a new institute in Houston that hopes to contribute to maintaining the state's leadership within the aerospace sector.

This week, the Texas A&M Space Institute got the greenlight for its $200 million plan. The announcement follows a $350 million investment from the Texas Legislature. The institute is planned to be constructed next to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“The Texas A&M Space Institute will make sure the state expands its role as a leader in the new space economy,” John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, says in a news release. “No university is better equipped for aeronautics and space projects than Texas A&M.” Continue reading the full story from August.

Tim Craine is co-founder and CTO of Intuitive Machines. Photo via intuitivemachines.com

Houston innovator discusses the power of a pivot and the future of the Space City

houston innovators podcast episode 208

It might surprise many to learn that publicly traded, NASA-backed Intuitive Machines, which has emerged as a commercial leader within lunar access technology development, had several pivots before finding its niche within space innovation.

In fact, as Co-Founder and CTO Tim Crain explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, the company was founded as a space-focused think tank. Crain, along with his co-founders CEO Steve Altemus and Chairman Kamal Ghaffarian, came together in 2013 to start Intuitive Machines, which recently moved into a $40 million headquarters in the Houston Spaceport.

"At the time, our thought was, 'let's take the best of human space flight engineering processes, disciplines, and know how, and look at how we might commercially deploy that for biomedical, energy, big data, and aerospace,'" Crain says on the show. "We wanted to look at how we use great engineering for some of the hard problems outside of NASA's aerospace sphere."

Crain describes the early years of IM as important to the company because the founders learned how to run a business and meet customers' needs and expectations — things he had little experience from his previous roles as a civil servant at NASA. But Crain says they never fell in love with any of the early technologies and ideas they developed — from long-range drones to precision drilling technologies.

Then, everyone's eyes were on returning to the moon. With this new vision, NASA created the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. As Crain explains, this evolution involved looking to hire companies to deliver scientific and developmental payloads to the moon. IM won three of the NASA contracts so far, representing three missions for NASA.

"We dipped our toe in the 'let's develop the moon' river and promptly got pulled all the way in," Crain says. "We left our think tank, broad, multi-sector efforts behind, and really pivoted at that point to focus entirely on NASA's CLPS needs. ... The timing really could not have been any better."

Later this month, Crain will discuss IM's journey in detail for a NASA Tech Talk at the Ion. If you're interested in learning more after listening to the podcast, click here to sign up for the free October 26 event.

With Crain's decades in the space industry, he's observed a resurgence lately, and that has directly impacted Houston's role in the industry.

"The future of Space City is really just beginning to move into a time of producing the hardware here and having Houstonians make the spacecraft, space systems, and the technologies that we use to explore and develop the solar system," Crain says on the show.

"The Infinite" lands in Houston for the first U.S. show. Image courtesy of Infinity Productions

High-tech virtual reality experience blasts into the Space City

to infinity and beyond

From the earliest days of our circling the planet in a tiny NASA capsule — to Elon Musk's SpaceX current commercial journeys — Houston and space travel will be forever and inexorably linked.

Fitting, then, that an unprecedented new immersive experience centered on the International Space Station (ISS) is making its U.S. debut here in Space City. "The Infinite"— a multi-sensory, interactive virtual reality experience — will zoom into Sawyer Yards on December 20 for a special, and limited, run, organizers announced.

This sprawling, 12,500-square-foot exhibition shuttles viewers into a never-before-seen perspective of life on the ISS, bringing an almost-too-real feeling of being in outer space.

Tickets are on sale now for a soft open preview period beginning on December 20; admission is $29. Tickets then jump to $36 for the full-scale limited engagement beginning on January 13, 2022.

Boasting footage shot over a period of nearly three years that created some 200 hours of high-end virtual reality scenes, the four-part immersive series documents the life of eight international astronauts inside — and outside — the International Space Station. (The outside experience promises to be an especially wild ride.) The show comes to Houston off a wildly popular Canadian run in Montreal.

Specific to this Houston launch, the show boasts new footage from the first-ever cinematic spacewalk captured in 3D — 360-degree virtual reality shot outside the International Space Station on September 12, 2021 — while offering visitors a self-directed experience aboard the ISS itself, according to a press release.

Throughout the 60-minute journey, per press materials, viewers will engage with physical objects, virtual reality, multimedia art, soundscapes, light design, and even the subtle scents of a forest, meant to evoke memories of stargazing while lying on the grass.

"The Infinite" is the brainchild of Montreal-based Infinity Experiences, a joint venture of PHI Studio and Felix & Paul Studios, and is an extension of the recent Primetime Emmy Award-winning immersive series, "Space Explorers: The ISS Experience," the largest production ever filmed in space, produced by Felix & Paul Studios in association with Time Studios.

That this show will run next year is also especially timely for Houston's space saga. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famous moon-shot speech given at Rice University on September 12, 1962. That speech, with its now-legendary "we choose to go to the moon" line, galvanized the nation and propelled the U.S. into a space race that found Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon only seven years later.

"The exploration of space and the unknown is an endless source of fascination to us," said Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder of Felix & Paul Studios and creative director of The Infinite, in a statement.

"We are thrilled to bring The Infinite to Houston — the global epicenter of human space exploration — to share this massive, fully immersive exhibition, and we look forward to virtually transporting thousands of people off the Earth to enjoy the joy and wonder of space with audiences in the U.S. This unprecedented project is made possible thanks to our partners at NASA, the ISS National Lab, international space agencies and the incredible power of virtual reality."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The panel of experts discussed the Space City's history — but also its future as a leader in space exploration. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Overheard: Houston experts weigh in on the future of the Space City

EAVESDROPPING IN HOUSTON

Houston's been known as the Space City for about 50 years since "Houston" was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. But whether or not that nickname will continue to stick was up for debate at a 2019 SpaceCom panel on November 21.

The panel, entitled "Regional Benefits of a Commercial Space Economy: Case Study Houston," the panelists set out to discuss the city's rich history of space exploration, as well as to answer the question of where Houston's space industry is headed.

"We could ask that question in a passive way, but my preference is that here in Houston we ask the question now, answer it, and be very proactive and deliberate about making sure we get the outcome that we want," says Vernon McDonald, senior vice president at KBR and moderator of the discussion.

If you missed the enlightening discussion, here are a few takeaways from the panelists.

"Houston is in this great position to be this beacon to lead entrepreneurs and inspire other regions to explore further."

Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy. Jenet, who is based in Brownsville, Texas, is working to develop a vibrant commercial space hub in South Texas. In a lot of ways, the area looks to Houston's history for its development, he says.

"We built a community of engineers and scientists and a workforce that's all vested in the outcome of the human space flight program."

Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines. The creation of the Johnson Space Center developed generations within the community of scientists and engineers, but, moving forward, Houston has to be intentional about building its talent base. "I'm very passionate about doing that here in Houston," Altemus adds.

"There's a beacon of hope for our community if we can organize around it and attract commercial business here to keep this city the Space City, but redefine ourselves as a commercial space hub."

Altemus says, adding that it's going to take further development, talent, and funds — like what's happening at the Houston Spaceport — to make this transition.

"Over the years, Houston took space for granted. Houston started to focus on the bigger industries that brought in funding and jobs."

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At the risk of being unpopular, Gonzalez mentions that the city's attention has been diverted from space exploration. However, he adds, there are new initiatives from the Greater Houston Partnership and Houston First that are picking up the slack.

"The answers to Houston delivering on its potential is going to be collaborations — how well we collaborate."

Harvin Moore, president at Houston Exponential. Houston is collaborative, and the city needs to make sure its resources are inclusive as commercial space develops in town.

"I'd like to say that Houston is the birthplace of human space flight, and in 50 years, I'd like to see the city be the leader and the point of the spirit for human exploration internationally and commercially out in mars and beyond.

Altemus responds when asked about the Space City's next 50 years.

"I think what Houston will be most proud of in 50 years is that we played an extremely important role in shaping how Texas leads the world in commercial space exploration."

Jenet, who mentions that there's space exploration innovation happening statewide.

"When you think about what [leading space exploration] company will be here fifty years from now, I don't think it's been created yet. But I would like that company to be here in Houston."

Gonzalez says, adding that the first trillionaire is likely to make his or her fortune in the space industry, and he wants that money here in Houston.

"A lot of our future is not going to be based on what huge companies or government are doing but much more about entrepreneurs."

Moore says, emphasizing the need for developing startup resources in Houston.

If Houston wants to maintain its title as Space City, it needs to channel the innovation of its history as space exploration moves forward. Pexels

Houston can stay the Space City within medical and health innovation

Guest column

Space has captured the imagination of mankind since we first looked up at the night sky. We've reached out to touch the stars, and now endeavor to inhabit them.

Earlier this month, a prominent collection of experts on space health attended the first Space Health Innovation Conference co-hosted by the University of California, San Francisco, and Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

As NASA eyes a return to the moon with the Artemis Program, attendees of the Space Health Innovation Conference advanced a national discussion of human space exploration by seeking to manage the many health risks associated with humans during space flight. The event included NASA leadership, innovative companies, commercial space vendors, as well as leaders from the space health and life sciences communities.

The conference's goal is to inform, inspire and invite participation in the exciting challenge of optimizing health and medical management in space environments.

With its headquarters in Houston, TRISH partnered with the Human Research Program at Johnson Space Center to source and seed the best emerging health technologies to support NASA's space exploration. TRISH is based out of the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and is a consortium that includes the rich space pedigree of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. The Space Health Innovation Conference is the result of a grant by TRISH to UCSF. TRISH has also hosted Space Health focused events at the MIT Media lab and at Caltech.

TRISH's main charge is finding disruptive health technologies and new scientists to fuel the US Space Program. TRISH explores emerging areas of science that support health and human performance in the harsh environment of microgravity and high radiation. TRISH funds novel research in artificial intelligence, omics, human computer interfaces, behavioral health and beyond. Projects all share one goal: predicting and protecting future Mars explorers. And NASA leadership encourages TRISH to take the risks that could mean huge leaps forward.

Innovation and risk tolerance are hallmarks of Houston and its rich history. From the city's humble origins, to Jesse Jones's national financial leadership, to the building of the Houston Ship Channel, and to the explosion of the energy industry, Houston has always dared to leap forward. President John F. Kennedy's iconic speech entitled "Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort" declared the US ambition to embrace the new frontier of space and conquer the moon. Humble Oil donated the 1,620 acres for JSC to Rice University, who then sold the land to NASA for $20. (Humble Oil would later become Exxon Mobil.)

JSC housed flight control, space flight training, and the NASA Astronaut Corps. JSC gave Houston the nickname "Space City", which led to the naming of the local NBA team to be the Rockets and the local MLB team to be the Astros. JSC's support for the astronaut corps began with the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, which evaluated the Apollo astronauts upon return to Earth. And the Christopher C Kraft Mission Control facility has directed all crewed space flights since the early Gemini program. An American flag flies atop Mission Control at JSC every day that an American is in space. That flag has flown continuously since November 2, 2000.

Nearly two decades since Bill Shepherd first boarded the International Space Station, the conversation around supporting human health and performance in space continues. And Houston will continue to lead the way for all our sakes, in space and on terra firma.

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James Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer at Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

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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.