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

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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4 startups pitch at virtual demo day for Houston accelerator program

resillience

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies.

"Through it all, and in a virtual world, Cohort 2 startups, the mentors, and our Ion team have been the change we wish to see in the world," Galib continues. "For these startups, failure is simply not an option — and neither is going at it alone."

Earlier this year, Galib announced the second cohort would be focused on solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs. The program, backed by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX, launched on Earth Day and commenced shortly after. Cohort 3 is expected later this year.

Here are the four companies that pitched and the problems they are trying to solve.

Re:3D

re:3D was founded just down the street from NASA's Johnson Space Center to address the need for a mid-market 3D printing solution. The Houston-based startup also wanted to create their 3D printer that operates on recycled plastics in order to prevent excess waste.

"Where some see trash, we see opportunity," Charlotte Craff, community liaison at Re:3D says in her presentation.

Re:3D's clients can get their hands on their own Gigabot for less than $10,000, and the printer uses pellets and flakes from recycled plastics —not filament — to print new designs. Clients are also supported by the company with design software and training.

"We can help the city of Houston help meet its climate action and resilient city goals by transforming the way people think about recycling," Craff says about Re:3D's future partnerships with the city.

Water Lens

While two-thirds of the world is covered in water, only 0.7 percent is drinkable. And of that fresh water, 92 percent of it is used in agricultural and industrial settings. This is how Keith Cole, CEO and founder of Water Lens, set the scene for his presentation.

Water Lens, which is based in Houston with a lab located in Austin, wants to solve the problem of cities and countries running out of fresh, drinkable water by equipping huge water-using companies with a water testing tool.

"We've developed a system to let anyone test any water literally anywhere in the world," Cole says, citing clients like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Halliburton.

S2G Energy

S2G Energy, based in Mexico, is focused on optimizing energy management in order to digitize, empower, and unlock potential for cost-saving efforts and technology.

In his pitch, Geronimo Martinez, founder of S2G Energy, points out that restaurants, commercial buildings, and other adjacent industries can save money by implementing energy management solutions that come out of S2G Energy's expertise. In Mexico, Martinez says, clients include the top two restaurant chains that — especially during COVID-19 — need optimization and cost saving now more than ever.

Eigen Control

A refinery's distillation columns are expensive — their fuel use accounts for 50 of operating costs, says Dean Guma, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Eigen Control.

Guma explains in his pitch how Eigen Control's technology can plug into existing sensors, model networks based on data, and employ the startup's artificial intelligent technology to reduce carbon emissions and save money on operating costs.

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

It's a new month and Houston's innovation ecosystem is continuing to grow amid the coronavirus pandemic. This week's Houston innovators to know roundup reflects that growth with a new-to-town incubator's newly names leader — plus an entrepreneur creating an virtual reality app to escape and a communications expert's advice on navigating COVID-19.

Juliana Garaizar, launch director of Greentown Houston

Juliana Garaizar is working to help set up Houston's Greentown Labs incubator with diversity and inclusion in mind. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has had to keep a huge secret for a while. The launch director of new-to-Houston Greentown Labs has known about the cleantech incubator's plan to expand to the Bayou City for a while, and now the news is out. Of course, launching amid a pandemic isn't ideal, but Garaizar says its allowed a strong relationship with the original group based in Boston to form.

"I think the silver lining of this COVID-19 experience is that we are much more integrated with the Boston team, and we're learning at a much faster rate," she says. "That's why we decided to also open Houston for virtual memberships before we open our building in Q1 of 2021."

Garaizar joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share her experience with the organization and how she'll be setting up Houston operations with diversity and inclusion in mind. Read more and stream the episode.

Derek Armstrong, CEO and founder of Armstrong Innovations

Derek Armstrong, a Houston native, founded his design company, Armstrong Innovations. Photo courtesy of Oculus Go

Derek Armstrong had been working on a new virtual reality app for relaxation and meditation that users can enter into for an opportunity to escape reality for a bit — little did he know that was something more people than ever would want to do.

His company, a Houston-area industrial design startup, Armstrong Innovations, just launched two Oculus Go app games, aptly named 'Escape'. The VR app was designed with relaxation and meditation in mind but has doubled as a new way to relax and sightsee without leaving your home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The sights and sounds of our new app assist with mindfulness and meditation," says CEO and founder Derek Armstrong. "It's about focusing on the sights and sounds, especially with the virus growing. It's a quick getaway without having to physically go anywhere." Read more.

Megan Silianoff, founder and creative director of Mad Meg Creative Services

Megan Silianoff has been helping clients navigate communications during a pandemic. Courtesy photo

The worst part of contracting COVID-19 — aside from suffering from the disease itself — is diligently communicating the risk of exposure to people you've been around especially to coworkers, employees, clients, etc. In a guest article for InnovationMap, Megan Silianoff of Mad Meg Creative Services, sets the scene for you to be prepared should you find yourself in this situation,

"We understand as communication experts, informing a client, boss, or anyone that you've potentially exposed them is scary messaging to share," she writes. "Guilt is the number one emotion people report experiencing when they realize they've potentially exposed someone or a group of people, even though the respective exposure was inadvertent. Nevertheless it's crucial to communicate the exposure quickly and effectively as that's how Houston can hinder the spread of this disease through our city." Read more.