Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

For has long as I can remember, I had to live near water. That's why I moved to Houston. Recently, new neighbors moved next door from the downtown Galleria area. They loved it there until coronavirus turned shopping habits into stay-at-home habits. The experience led them to recognize they could do just fine without the Galleria-area routine, pivoting instead to a maritime lifestyle.

Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first. We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered.

This technology inversion fundamentally found its way to the individual consumer and transformed entire industries. Houston businesses are responding to a rare COVID-19-induced disruption. Inversions are rare, but when they occur, opportunity follows.

Large infrastructure challenges are normally led by bureaucratic funding processes that result in productized solutions. Hurricane Harvey was a wake-up call to take decisive action to protect decades of private and public investment against future flood events. It was an analogue to removing the board with the nail in it from the driveway to avoid endless tire repairs.

Now, Houston's resilience infrastructure is going through a Hurricane Harvey-induced inversion. The fundamental approach to water management is experiencing a historic reversal which focuses on need rather than a response cycle. Largely dependent on surface run-off systems, Houston experienced a river running through it during Hurricane Harvey. In response, studies and projects are underway to consider a major underground storm drainage system. Water management is fundamentally changing to move stormwater from above ground to below grade, while domestic water is moving away from underground sources to surface supplies, such as lakes. These programs reduce threats to downtown, allowing urbanism and businesses to flourish, simply by addressing a human need in lieu of building another drainage product.

Fortunately for the Houston economy, pre-COVID, quasi-inversion programs already in place to address mobility needs, such as the $7.5 billion METRONext program and $4.8 billion for flood control essentials, are injecting billions of dollars into the local economy. At the federal level, future stimulus funding designed to address infrastructure needs and the economic impact of Coronavirus are likely to follow next year. Consequently, the current Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 inversion could position Houston to rebound from a time of trial reimagining what a next generation city in the modern age should look like.

Graphic courtesy of AECOM

In fact, infrastructure programs have a long history of creating sustainable jobs and transforming cities. Did you know the River Walk in San Antonio, a downtown centerpiece that thrives today and contributes to thousands of job opportunities, was a construction project born during the Great Depression to address a disastrous flood occurring in the early 1920s? San Antonio architect Robert H. H. Hugman was elected to address a need to save lives and reimagine San Antonio's downtown. The city was altered forever by creating a flood resilience infrastructure that also transformed its city center into a civic gathering place that made San Antonio one of the largest destination cities in Texas.

While technology inversions are occurring more often than before, they are still rare, and each one is very important. Infrastructure inversions that transform cites are even more exceptional. In a COVID-19-induced inversion period, the possibilities are limitless, and the time is now. With programs underway and potential stimulus funding to support additional investment to address city needs, Houston is positioned for something amazing.

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Tony Loyd is based in Houston and vice president at AECOM.

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Houston e-commerce unicorn secures $130M in financing

scaling up

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

“Scaleup” refers to a startup that has achieved tremendous growth and has maintained a stable workforce, among other positive milestones. Airbnb, Peloton, and Uber are prime examples of businesses that evolved from startup to scaleup.

Cart.com says the new term loan facility from BlackRock consolidates its venture debt into one package “at competitive terms.” Those terms weren’t disclosed.

The company says the refinancing will enable it to expand into new markets and improve its technology, including its Constellation OMS order management system.

“Cart.com is one of the fastest-growing providers of commerce and logistics solutions today, and I’m excited to partner with BlackRock as we continue to aggressively invest to help our customers operate more efficiently,” Omair Tariq, the company’s founder and CEO, says in a news release.

Through a network of 14 fulfillment centers, Cart.com supports over 6,000 customers and 75 million orders per year.

"BlackRock is pleased to support Cart.com as it advances its mission to unify digital and physical commerce infrastructure," says Keon Reed, a director at BlackRock. “This latest facility underscores our confidence in the company’s differentiated product offerings and financial strategy as it enters its next stage of growth.”

Elon Musk says he's moving SpaceX, X headquarters from California to Texas

cha-cha-changes

Billionaire Elon Musk says he's moving the headquarters of SpaceX and social media company X to Texas from California.

Musk posted on X Tuesday that he plans on moving SpaceX from Hawthorne, California, to the company's rocket launch site dubbed Starbase in Texas. X will move to Austin from San Francisco.

He called a new law signed Monday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that bars school districts from requiring staff to notify parents of their child’s gender identification change the “final straw.”

“I did make it clear to Governor Newsom about a year ago that laws of this nature would force families and companies to leave California to protect their children,” Musk wrote.

Tesla, where Musk is CEO, moved its corporate headquarters to Austin from Palo Alto, California in 2021.

Musk has also said that he has moved his residence from California to Texas, where there is no state personal income tax.

SpaceX builds and launches its massive Starship rockets from the southern tip of Texas at Boca Chica Beach, near the Mexican border at a site called Starbase. The company’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Southern California.

It’s just below South Padre Island, and about 20 miles from Brownsville.

Play it back: This Houston innovator is on a mission to develop tech for the moon

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 244

Editor's note: This week on the Houston Innovators Podcast, we’re revisiting a conversation with Tim Crain, the co-founder and CTO at Intuitive Machines, that originally ran in October of 2023.

If you haven't noticed, the moon is having a bit of a moment — and Tim Crain of Intuitive Machines is here for it.

For the past five or so years, NASA and the federal government have introduced and strengthened initiatives to support innovation of technology to be used to get to and explore the moon.

NASA, which is currently focused on its Artemis program that's sending four missions to the moon, also launched the Commercial Lunar Payload Services that's working with several American companies, including Intuitive Machines, to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface.

"Around 2018 or 2019, the moon came back into favor as a destination for American space policy, and it came back in such a way that there's a directive at the national level — at a level above NASA — to explore and develop the moon as a national priority," Crain says in the episode.



On the show, Crain explains the history of Intuitive Machines, which has taken an indirect path to where it is today. The company was founded in 2013 by Crain and co-founders CEO Steve Altemus and Chairman Kamal Ghaffarian as a space-focused think tank. Crain says they learned how to run a business and meet customers' needs and expectations, but they never fell in love with any of the early technologies and ideas they developed — from long-range drones to precision drilling technologies.

But the company answered NASA's call for moon technology development, and Intuitive Machines 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."

Since recording the podcast, Intuitive Machines celebrated a historic mission that landed the first lunar lander on the surface of the moon in over 50 years — and the first commercially operated mission ever. The company is also working on a $30 million project for NASA to develop lunar lander technology.

This week, Intuitive Machines announced a successful test result for engine technology to be used in the lunar lander project.