Texas A&M University signed an agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center last month, and the American Center for Manufacturing and Innovation signed a similar agreement a few weeks later. Photo via nasa.gov

NASA and the American Center for Manufacturing and Innovation signed an agreement Thursday, Feb. 29 to lease underutilized land in a 240-acre Exploration Park at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The deal comes after a similar lease with the Texas A&M University System.

ACMI will enable the development of facilities to enable commercial and defense space manufacturing, while A&M reports that it will develop a facility for human spaceflight research and development.

These two public/private lease agreements allow industry and academia to use NASA Johnson land to create facilities for a collaborative development environment that increases commercial access and enhances the United States' commercial competitiveness in the space and aerospace industries.

“For more than 60 years, NASA Johnson has been the hub of human spaceflight,” NASA Johnson Director Vanessa Wyche says in a news release. “Exploration Park will be the next spoke in the larger wheel of a robust and durable space economy that will benefit not only exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, but all of humanity as the benefits of space exploration research roll home to Earth.”

Calling it the Space Systems Campus, ACMI plans to incorporate an applied research facility partnered with multiple stakeholders across academia, state and local government, the Department of Defense and regional economic development organizations.

"This Space Systems Campus will be a significant component within our objectives for a robust and durable space economy that will benefit not only the nation's efforts to explore the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, but all of humanity as the benefits of space exploration research roll home to Earth," Wyche says of the ACMI deal.

As the home of Mission Control Center for the agency's human space missions, astronaut training, robotics, human health and space medicine, NASA Johnson leads the way for the human exploration. Leveraging this unique role and location, Exploration Park will play a key role in helping the human spaceflight community attain U.S. goals for the commercialization and development of a robust space economy by creating an infrastructure that fosters a multi-use environment where academic researchers, aerospace companies and entrepreneurs can collaborate with NASA. Exploration Park will create an infrastructure that allows for a multi-use space hardware development environment, where academic researchers, aerospace companies and entrepreneurs can collaborate on space exploration's greatest challenges.

"ACMI Properties will develop this Campus to serve the needs of our future tenants, aerospace industry, the Department of Defense and other significant stakeholders that comprise our ecosystem approach," said Simon Shewmaker, head of development for ACMI Properties. "Our aim is to support human spaceflight missions for the next 40 years and beyond."

NASA issued an announcement for proposals for use of the undeveloped and underutilized land near Saturn Lane on June 9, 2023, and has just completed negotiations with ACMI to formalize the lease agreement. The parcel is outside of Johnson's controlled access area and adjacent to its main campus. NASA will lease the land for 20 years with two 20-year extension options, for a potential of up to 60 years.

In the coming years, NASA and its academic, commercial, and international partners will see the completion of the International Space Station Program, the commercial development of low Earth orbit, and the first human Artemis campaign missions establishing sustainable human presence on the Moon in preparation for human missions to Mars.

Johnson already is leading the commercialization of space with the commercial cargo and crew programs and private astronaut missions to the space station. The center also is supporting the development of commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, and lunar-capable commercial spacesuits and lunar landers that will be provided as services to both NASA and the private sector to accelerate human access to space. Through the development of Exploration Park, the center will broaden the scope of the human spaceflight community that is tackling the many difficult challenges ahead.

The grant will create a new Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub, known as REACH, in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Houston initiative receives $4M grant to promote biomedical entrepreneurship

fresh funding

The National Institute of Health has awarded a $4 million grant to a Houston-area initiative in the name of sparking biomedical activity.

The grant will create a new Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub, known as REACH, in Houston. The team behind the Gulf Coast Consortium — one of the world’s largest inter-institutional cooperatives, which includes eight of Houston’s medical research leading lights — has been hard at work to bring REACH-GCC to fruition.

The result? A multidisciplinary means of promoting biomedical entrepreneurship, bringing innovators from concept to commercialization.

“I can tell you that a lot of those potential users came out of our research consortium. Those users span from a focus on mental health to antibiotic resistance to regenerative medicine to pain management to, of course, cancer,” says Suzanne Tomlinson of Rice University.

Tomlinson is the director of GCC research programs and worked with Stan Watowich of The University of Texas Medical Branch to create the grant. Peter Davies helped to submit it through Texas A&M University.

One of the dozen research and educational programs that Tomlinson directs is the Innovative Drug Discovery and Development Consortium.

“Within that, we have established a wide network of drug to drug discovery and development cores,” she says.

The vast majority of those are funded by CPRIT (Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas), and Tomlinson and Watowich (the chair of IDDD’s steering committee) were lead developers and authors of the grant to create TMCi’s Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (ACT). That accelerator is a model for what GCC-REACH may do for taking other innovations from discovery to market.

“We get close to a billion dollars in research monies a year coming into the Medical Center. The question is, ‘Are we seeing a lot of those dollars resulting in products that benefit patients?’ And the answer always is, ‘We can do better,’” says Watowich.

How will GCC-REACH help to do that? By combining the forces of all eight full members of the GCC, plus outside help when it’s needed. Watowich sets for the example of a budding entrepreneur at his home institution, UTMB. That researcher could potentially receive guidance from an MD Anderson expert in immunotherapies or a Rice scientist who focuses on nanotechnology delivery systems.

“This grant is designed to put together a bespoke team of whatever is needed to have a discussion with and figure out what's the market for this technology. How might it get there?’” says Watowich.

Those options could include setting up a startup company, but could also mean licensing the idea to someone else, whether it’s a company or an institution.

“Our goal is, we help each other. We help ourselves. We help the patient population. And we do that through working together,” he continues.

Though it sounds like GCC-REACH could be a competitor to other accelerators, Watowich doesn’t see it that way. He sees the new hub as working with very early-stage creators who may still take part in those existing accelerators in the future. And the team hopes to do so quickly. The goal is to launch this month. Watowich says that the plan is to use the NIH’s $4 million to launch around 60 early stage biomedical companies over the next four years.

A variety of nascent founders — regardless of their type of innovative solution — will take part in the initiative.

“It can be a device, it could be an AI, it could be an app, it could be digital health, it could be therapeutics,” says Watowich. “We have experts across all of these areas that could help provide guidance and mentoring to try to move those companies forward.”

UH ranked No. 8 in Texas. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

3 Houston universities rise to the top in new list of best Texas schools for 2024

top schools

Houston universities are ramping up high quality educational experiences for their students as three local universities earn top 10 ranks for the best Texas colleges in 2024, according to a new report by U.S. News and World Report.

Rice University claimed the top spot in Texas, and ranked No. 17 in the national ranking. Houston's "Ivy League of the South" had an undergraduate enrollment of nearly 4,500 students in fall 2022. In April, Rice's Jones School of Business ranked No. 2 in U.S. News' ranking of the best graduate programs in Texas.

According to Rice's profile, the university also prides itself as a top-tier research institution. In fact, Rice just opened a massive new research facility on campus.

A degree from Rice University in Houston was ranked most valuable in the state of Texas. Rice University

"From your first semester on campus, no matter your major, you'll have the opportunity to conduct research alongside experts," the school said. "You'll be able to apply your skills, gain valuable professional experience and interact with industry leaders as you address real-world issues."

The University of Houston ranked No. 8 in the Texas rankings, and No. 133 in the national report. With a total undergraduate enrollment of nearly 38,000 students in fall 2022, U.S. News says the university has a rich campus culture that encourages students to participate in different organizations and activities.

"Each year, students turn the campus into a town called Fiesta City in time for the Frontier Fiesta, a string of concerts, talent shows, cook-offs and more," U.S. News' overview said. "There are more than 400 student organizations to check out, including fraternities and sororities."

Completing the Texas top 10 is the University of St. Thomas, which ranked No. 216 nationally. The private Catholic university has the smallest fall 2022 undergraduate enrollment out of all three Houston universities: 2,729 students.

Elsewhere in Texas, nearby Texas A&M University in College Station earned the title for the third-best college in Texas, and No. 47 in the nation. That's big news for one of the fastest-growing college towns in the U.S.

U.S. News' top 10 best colleges in Texas in 2024 are:

  • No. 1 – Rice University, Houston
  • No. 2 – University of Texas at Austin
  • No. 3 – Texas A&M University, College Station
  • No. 4 – Southern Methodist University, Dallas
  • No. 5 – Baylor University, Waco
  • No. 6 – Texas Christian University, Fort Worth
  • No. 7 – The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson
  • No. 8 – University of Houston
  • No. 9 – Texas Tech University, Lubbock
  • No. 10 – University of St. Thomas, Houston

The full rankings can be found on usnews.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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

Texas university to build $200M space institute in Houston

gig 'em

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.”

The new institute would build on A&M's expertise and resources to, according to the release, "make new discoveries, technological developments, health advances and workforce growth." Within its system, the university's space presence includes:

  • Four astronaut faculty members.
  • Scientists and engineers have participated in all NASA rover missions to Mars with two scientists active on NASA's Perseverance Rover Team.
  • More than 280 faculty and investigators are involved in space-related research.
  • Students, faculty and researchers are working on more than 300 space-related projects.
  • For the past five years, over 25 million per year in funding awards from NASA, other government agencies, and the commercial space industry.
  • Interdisciplinary space-related research across more than 12 colleges/schools within the Texas A&M University System universities.

Last summer, NASA and Texas A&M signed a Space Act Agreement, a general agreement to promote collaboration with the agency.

The Welch Foundation, a Houston-based nonprofit, has doled out fresh funding to research organizations, with over a third being deployed to Houston-area institutions. Photo via Getty Images

Houston organization announces nearly $28M in Texas research grant funding

money moves

Five schools in the Houston area have landed $10.8 million in research grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

The 36 grants were awarded to Rice University, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, the Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

In all, the foundation announced nearly $28 million in Texas research grants for 2023. All of the money — in the form of 91 grants for 15 Texas colleges and universities — goes toward chemical research. This year’s total for grant funding matches last year’s total.

“The Welch Foundation continues to emphasize the creative pursuit of basic chemical research,” Adam Kuspa, the foundation’s president and a former dean at the Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release. “Our funding allows investigators throughout the state to follow their curiosity and explore the foundations chemical processes.”

Since its establishment in 1954, the Welch Foundation has contributed about $1.1 billion to the advancement of chemistry in Texas.

One of this year’s local grant recipients is Haotian Wang, assistant professor in Rice’s chemical and biomolecular department. The professor’s grant-funded research will focus on the conversion of carbon dioxide into useful chemicals, such as ethanol.

Last year, Rice reported that Wang’s lab in the George R. Brown School of Engineering had replaced rare, expensive iridium with ruthenium, a more abundant precious metal, as the positive-electrode catalyst in a reactor that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The lab’s addition of nickel to ruthenium dioxide resulted in production of hydrogen from water electrolysis for thousands of hours.

“There’s huge industry interest in clean hydrogen,” Wang says. “It’s an important energy carrier and also important for chemical fabrication, but its current production contributes a significant portion of carbon emissions in the chemical manufacturing sector globally.”

“We want to produce it in a more sustainable way,” he adds, “and water-splitting using clean electricity is widely recognized as the most promising option.”

Houston is in the running to receive millions from a program from the National Science Foundation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston named semifinalist for major energy transition funding opportunity

making moves

The National Science Foundation announced 34 semifinalists for a regional innovation program that will deploy up to $160 million in federal funding over the next 10 years. Among the list of potential regions to receive this influx of capital is Houston.

The Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative developed the application for the NSF Regional Innovation Engine competition in collaboration with economic, civic, and educational leaders from across the city and five regional universities, including the University of Houston, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Texas A&M University.

The proposed project for Houston — called the Accelerating Carbon-Neutral Technologies and Policies for Energy Transition, or ACT, Engine — emphasizes developing sustainable and equitable opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs while also pursuing sustainable and equitable energy access for all.

“The ACT Engine will leverage our diverse energy innovation ecosystem and talent, creating a true competitive advantage for existing and new energy companies across our region," says Jane Stricker, senior vice president of energy transition and executive director for HETI, in a statement. "Texas is leading the way in nearly every energy and energy transition solution, and this Engine can catalyze our region’s continued growth in low-carbon technology development and deployment."

If Houston's proposal is selected as a finalist, it could receive up to $160 million over 10 years. The final list of NSF Engines awards is expected this fall, and, according to a release, each awardee will initially receiving about $15 million for the first two years.

"Each of these NSF Engines semifinalists represents an emerging hub of innovation and lends their talents and resources to form the fabric of NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere," NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says in a news release. "These teams will spring ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation."

The NSF selected its 34 semifinalists from 188 original applicants, and the next step for Houston is a virtual site visit that will assess competitive advantages, budget and resource plans for R&D and workforce development, and the proposed leadership’s ability to mobilize plans into action over the first two years.

"Houston is poised, like no other city, to lead the energy transition. The ACT Engine presents a remarkable opportunity to not only leverage the region's unparalleled energy resources and expertise but also harness our can-do spirit. Houston has a proven track record of embracing challenges and finding innovative solutions,” says Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, in the statement. “Through the collaborative efforts facilitated by the ACT Engine, I am confident that we can make significant strides towards creating a sustainable future that harmonizes economic growth, environmental protection and social equity."

NSF Engines will announce awards this fall after a round of in-person interviews of finalists named in July. With Houston's track record for building thriving industry hubs in energy, health care, aerospace, and the culinary arts, the region is eager to establish the next generation of leaders and dreamers responding to some of the greatest economic and societal challenges ever seen in America.

“Our energy innovation ecosystem is inclusive, dynamic, and fast growing," says Barbara Burger, energy transition adviser and former Chevron executive, in the release. "The ACT Engine has the potential to increase the amount of innovation coming into the ecosystem and the capabilities available to scale technologies needed in the energy transition. I am confident that the members of the ecosystem — incubators, accelerators, investors, universities, and corporates — are ready for the challenge that the ACT Engine will provide."

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

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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.