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.

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

Houston to host 6 Italian aerospace companies with new program

space it up

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."

The Italian companies in the inaugural cohort represent various areas of cutting-edge aerospace innovations and technologies. The selected companies are:

  • Arca Dynamics, a space traffic management and Earth observation service provider.
  • Delta Space, a low-cost satellite connectivity for sensors and launch services.
  • Involve Space, a pseudo-satellite platform and intelligent software to enable access to space.
  • Nabu, an IoT and data analysis provider.
  • NOVAC, which is producing an innovative shapeable all-solid-state structural supercapacitor.
  • T4i, developing innovative engines to serve small satellite platforms.

ITA and Space Foundation will provide a six-week immersive program focused on the most important aspects of the aerospace industry that will also include business events, networking opportunities, and, ultimately, connect the Houston aerospace community with the Italian startups.

Space It Up will launch its kick-off event at noon on September 1 at Ion Houston, followed by a demo day on September 27. The Demo Day will demonstrate the transformative impact on the aerospace industry by presenting the progress on break-through technologies and projects like the acceleration programs.

The Houston office is one of five ITA offices in the U.S. Other partnerships include Houston-based digital platform leader Village Insights, which will serve as a digital epicenter for Italy’s aerospace companies.

“From the cradle of Renaissance to the frontiers of the cosmos, Italy’s heritage of space innovations knows no bounds,” Keli Kedis Ogborn, Space Foundation vice president of space and entrepreneurship, says in a news release. “With a legacy of scientific advancements, Italy continues to script a new chapter in history, this time with a broader focus on international collaboration and impactful growth to the evolving global space ecosystem.”

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."

An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.

Houston startup scores $12M grant to support clinical evaluation of cancer-fighting drug

fresh funding

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.