Fifteen of Houston Innovation Awards finalists share the best advice they've given or received. Photo via Getty Images

The startup journey is a long and winding road, and there's many ways to navigate it. Fifteen of this year's finalists have shared what their most valuable startup advice for their fellow Houston founders.

From the importance of mentorship to tips for female and BIPOC founders, these pearls of wisdom come directly from a selection of finalists across a handful of categories, including DEI Champion, BIPOC-Owned Business, Female-Owned Business, and Mentor of the Year.

Read these excerpts of advice from Houston's innovation community's top startup founders and supporters.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where we'll name the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards winners.

"Be comfortable with asking for and accepting help. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint, but helping yourself with supportive people around is critical." — Cameron Carter of Rosarium Health, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Underrepresented founders often have trouble asking for what they want or deserve. ... Don't be scared to ask for what you want, or what you believe you deserve." — Pedro Silva of Milkify, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"It's not 'fake it' until you make it. It's 'take it' until you make it. Be proud to be you." — Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"When starting a company, remember it’s a game of attrition. The best way to last longer than your nearest neighbor is to find your tribe." — Aaron Fitzgerald of Mars Materials, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Know your worth and add tax. Choose your partners wisely — at home and work. Invest in the best stock you own: YOU." — Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Whatever battle you're fighting now that no one knows about — go ahead and WIN the war." — Shoshi Kaganovsky of Feelit Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"My advice would be to find truly effective mentors who are willing to open up their network for you. It doesn't matter if the mentors are men or women — what matters is that they genuinely care about your professional success and who you are as a person." — Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Healthcare, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Remember...There are a BILLION ways to apply sunscreen, but no matter how you apply it, it ALL protects you from the sun. Like sunscreen, there are infinite ways to succeed in the startup world. Trust your gut, stick to your vision, and keep trying until you find what works for you. ... Your purpose and vision should be your North Star, guiding decisions in team-building, coaching, and creating a company culture. Stick to that purpose—it's what will drive you through the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship." — Emily Cisek of The Postage, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"First and foremost, embrace your uniqueness. As a woman of color, you bring a distinctive perspective to the table. Your background is not just a part of who you are; it's a strength that sets you apart in a male-dominated industry. ... Resilience is your greatest ally. Challenges will arise, and it's okay to acknowledge them. What matters most is how you respond. Each obstacle is an opportunity for growth and learning. ... Lastly, trust yourself. You are not just running a business; you are shaping a narrative of empowerment and change." — Ghazal Qureshi of UpBrainery Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Figure out, learn, and understand your mission inside and out and use it to make all your major business (and sometimes personal) decisions." — LaGina R Harris, founder and CEO of The Us Space and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Know your value and continue advocating for inclusion." — Janice Tran of Kanin Energy, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Be your true, authentic self. There are going to be some people that like what you are doing, and there's going to be some people that don't, but the biggest thing is being true to who you are, and that's always going to flourish more than being who someone else wants you to be." — Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Until you hire someone, you are the one wearing the product manager hat. You've got to love the problem more than the solution." — Wade Pinder, founder of Product Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Be the person your younger self needed. Representation really does matter. Be a listening ear, share your lessons, and allow people to blossom under your leadership." — Michelle Ngome, founder and president of the African American Marketing Association and DEI Champion finalist

"Embrace your unique perspective as a source of strength and innovation. ... In Houston's dynamic startup scene, your presence and contributions as a traditionally marginalized founder or investor are essential for driving innovation and diversity. By staying resilient, seeking support, and advocating for inclusivity, you can navigate the entrepreneurial journey and make a lasting impact on both your business and the broader community." — Jessica Adebiyi, diversity and professional development director at Womble Bond Dickinson and DEI Champion finalist

Want to work for one of the top startups in Houston? Some of the best in Houston are hiring. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Looking for a job? These 2023 Houston Innovation Awards finalists are hiring

calling all applicants

More than half of this year's startup finalists in the Houston Innovation Awards are hiring — who's looking for a job at one of the best startups in Houston?

When submitting their applications for the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, which is taking place November 8 at Silver Street Studios, every startup was asked if it's hiring. Twenty-seven of the 35 startup honorees said yes, ranging from over 20 to just one positions open at each company.

Click here to secure your tickets to see which of these growing startups win.

Here's a look at which of the top startups in Houston are seeking new team members.

Double-digit growth

When it comes to the awards finalists looking to scale their team by 10 or more new hires, five finalists are growing rapidly.

Medical practice software platform RepeatMD, fresh off a $40 million raise — which included participation from Houston-based Mercury — is reportedly growing its team. The company, which has 115 employees already, is looking for over 20 new hires.

Female-owned business Feelit Technologies, which is using nanotechnology for preventive maintenance to eliminate leaks, fires and explosions, increase safety and reduce downtime, has 50 employees, and only three of which are in Houston – for now. The company hopes to grow its team by 12 to 15 employees in Houston alone.

Square Robot, an energy industry-focused robotics company that recently grew its presence in Houston, is hiring 10 to 30 new team members. It has 24 employees already in Houston.

Solugen, an alternative chemicals business, has around 140 of its 200 employees in Houston. The company, which has raised over $600 million to date, is hiring an additional 10 to 15 new hires.

Additionally, Blue People, also a finalist in last year's awards, is hiring 25 new employees. The company was founded in 2015 in Mexico and relocated its primary operations to Houston in 2020. Blue People, which develops software innovation for its clients, has over 150 employees — 10 of whom, including C-level executives, are based in Houston. Some of the company's new hires will be based in town.

Steady growth

Four Houston startups are hiring within the six to 10 team member range — all with fairly significant employee counts already.

A finalist in last year's awards too, Venus Aerospace, a hypersonics company on track to fly reusable hypersonic flight platforms by 2024, is again growing its team. With 48 on-site employees and 23 working remotely, Venus's team will add another five to 10 employees.

Syzygy Plasmonics, a deep decarbonization company that builds chemical reactors designed to use light instead of combustion to produce valuable chemicals like hydrogen and sustainable fuels, has 112 employees in Houston and plans to hire another eight to its team.

Lastly, Fervo Energy, which recently raised $10 million, has 63 full-time employees (34 in Houston, 29 outside of Houston) and looking to hire seven more.

Seeking selectively

The following awards finalists are looking to grow their teams by just a handful or so — between one and five — of new hires:

  • ALLY Energy, helping energy companies and climate startups find, develop, and retain great talent.
  • CaseCTRL, an AI-powered surgery scheduling and coordination software for optimized procedures.
  • CellChorus, using AI to evaluate immune cell function and performance to improve the development and delivery of therapeutics.
  • FluxWorks, making frictionless gearboxes for missions in any environment.
  • Helix Earth Technologies, decarbonizing the built environment and heavy industry.
  • Hope Biosciences, a clinical stage biotechnology company focused on the development and delivery of adult stem cell based therapeutics.
  • Innovapptive, empowering the deskless workers in operations, maintenance and warehouses by unlocking the power of SAP through mobility.
  • INOVUES, re-energizing building facades through its non-invasive window retrofit innovations, making building smarter, greener, and healthier for a better and sustainable future.
  • Koda Health, , a tech-enabled care coordination service to improve serious illness care planning and drive savings for value-based care at scale.
  • Molecule, an energy/commodity trading risk management software that provides users with an efficient, reliable, responsive platform for managing trade risk.
  • Rhythm Energy, 100 percent renewable electricity service for residential customers in Texas.
  • Starling Medical, bringing the future of a proactive and predictive home-based healthcare system to patients today through passive AI powered at home urine screening.
  • Taurus Vascular, pioneering a new era of aortic aneurysm treatment by developing minimally invasive catheter solutions to drive better long-term patient outcomes.
  • Tierra Climate, decarbonizing the power grid faster by helping grid-scale batteries monetize their environmental benefits and change their operational behavior to abate more carbon.
  • UpBrainery Technologies, an innovative educational technology company that provides personalized and adaptive learning experiences to learners
  • Utility Global, a technology company converting a range of waste gases into sustainable hydrogen and syngas.
  • Voyager Portal, helping commodity shippers identify root causes of demurrage, reduce risk and streamline the entire fixture process.

Ghazal Qureshi's Houston-based startup has advanced to the semifinal round of a prestigious national competition. Photo courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

Houston-based educational startup secures seed funding, advances to next round in prestigious competition

Funding futures

A Houston startup has advanced to the semifinal round of an inaugural competition focused on promoting educational technology for K-12 students.

UpBrainery, an immersive educational technology platform that customizes lessons for students, received $20,000 in seed funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Visionary Interdisciplinary Teams Advancing Learning (VITAL) prize challenge. The $6 million prize challenge is cosponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and the Walton Family Foundation.

“This incredible achievement reflects our commitment to pushing the boundaries of knowledge and technology,” UpBrainery states in a LinkedIn announcement.

In addition to the seed money, UpBrainery will be partnered with a mentor to help them improve the logistics of their exploratory learning and AI aided platform, with a focus on developing their minimum viable prototype.

“As we progress to the semifinal round, we remain committed to our mission. This recognition from the NSF further fuels our passion to continue pushing the boundaries and finding new ways to make a positive impact on society,” UpBrainery's LinkedIn post continues.

CEO and team leader Ghazal Qureshi, who was recently nominated for Forbes’ “50 Over 50: Impact” list, founded the career and technical education centered app in 2020. Offering online courses from the basics of culinary skills to sportscode gaming and programming, UpBrainery aims to spark students’ curiosity with the ultimate goal of helping them uncover their future career paths. Last year, Qureshi was named to Entrepreneur Magazine's 2022 Women of Influence list.

Upbrainery is among 54 teams that reached the semifinal round of the VITAL prize challenge, successfully emerging from the initial discovery round of which there were 100 teams. One other Texas-based startup moved forward to the semifinals, FabuLingua, an Austin based startup that employs science-based language learning tools in its mobile game for kids.

The final round of the competition will consist of 18 teams, all of which will be eligible for an additional $50,000 in seed funding. Three first place winning teams of the final round will each receive another $250,000 in seed funding.

Upbrainery recently joined a Houston-based accelerator, Softeq Ventures, earlier this year.

When it comes to innovation within education, trivia has a role to play, says this Houston edtech startup founder. Photo via Getty Images

Houston founder on the power of trivia when it comes to reliable education

guest column

Recently, our focus shifted towards quizzing — how to assess knowledge and retain information in the most innovative way possible. Personally, we are not in favor of low-level questions that simply rely on cramming, as they block away creativity. The primary motivation of traditional learning is punitive with high demands of simply, making the students read the content.

Castrophying effective learning with poor teaching methods has caused a stir of poor performance despite raging talent, the students perform badly. The question is why? Is quizzing not the proper assessment tool? Before we jump onto the bandwagon, let's understand the power of effective learning.

Effective learning and trivia

Using technological, societal, and cultural trends to upgrade from traditional white-board methods towards evolving modern technology is what leads to effective learning. With UpBrainery, we focus on technological advancements that personalize the experience to meet the unique needs and preferences of individual learners. The goal is to combine different strategies and approaches, including personalized learning, collaborative learning, multimodal learning, and accessible learning. These approaches may incorporate a variety of tools and technologies, such as adaptive learning platforms, online collaboration tools, virtual and augmented reality, and assistive technologies for learners with disabilities.

That being said, trivia can certainly be a valuable addition to a well-rounded learning approach. It can help learners stay engaged and motivated, while also stimulating memory, attention, creativity, and learning transfer. In the future, we may see more innovative and interactive forms of trivia-based learning, as well as new tools and technologies for supporting cognitive development and effective learning in a variety of contexts. How cool will that be?

Trivia and cognitive processes

Cognition refers to the mental processes involved in acquiring, processing, and using knowledge. Trivia can be a fun and engaging way to help individuals improve their memory skills.

By learning and recalling new facts, individuals can strengthen their ability to store and retrieve information, which can support learning and problem-solving in other areas. It helps individuals improve their attention skills by requiring them to focus on new information and recall it quickly. This can be particularly helpful for individuals with attention deficit disorders or other challenges that make it difficult to stay focused for extended periods of time.

Furthermore, it stimulates creativity by encouraging individuals to think outside the box and come up with new ways of connecting and interpreting information. By exploring new facts and ideas, individuals can develop their ability to generate new insights and solutions to problems. Finally, trivia can help individuals transfer learning from one context to another. By learning new facts and ideas in a trivia context, individuals can develop their ability to apply that knowledge in other areas of their lives, such as work or school.

Overall, while trivia may not be a complete substitute for other learning methods, it can be a valuable tool for supporting and enhancing learning in a variety of contexts.

Trivia in classroom

Through research and incorporating trivia as a source of effective learning, we have gathered a few ways how to support learning in different contexts:

1. Classroom learning: Trivia can be used to support classroom learning by introducing interesting and unusual facts that relate to the topic being studied. For example, if students are learning about the solar system, a teacher could share trivia facts about each planet to help students remember key characteristics.

2. Online learning: Trivia can be used in online learning environments to add an element of fun and engagement to the material. For example, an online course on history could include trivia quizzes at the end of each module to help learners reinforce their understanding and test their knowledge.

3. Study groups: Trivia can be a useful tool for study groups to review material and prepare for exams. By creating trivia questions that cover key concepts and facts, study groups can help each other reinforce their understanding and identify areas where they may need additional support.

4. Corporate training: Trivia can be used in corporate training programs to make the material more engaging and memorable. For example, a training session on customer service could include trivia questions that relate to common customer service scenarios and help employees to remember key principles and best practices.

5. Personal learning: Trivia can be a fun and engaging way to learn new information on a personal level. For example, if you are interested in a particular topic, you could challenge yourself to learn a certain number of trivia facts about it each day or week, helping you to deepen your understanding and expand your knowledge base.

With that being said...

Trivia can be a fun and engaging way to learn new facts and information across a wide range of topics. It increases student participation, improves test scores, lowers failure rates, and overall boosts overall motivation and the will to learn more. With this in mind, at UpBrainery Technologies, we focus on innovative teaching methods to make education fun rather than a burden, check out our Brainlab and get access to unlimited resources, and crash courses.

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Ghazal Qureshi is the founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform that taps into neuroscience research-based programs to provide adaptive learning and individualized pathways for students at home or in the classroom.

Fourteen companies are joining the spring cohort of the Softeq Venture Studio. Photo courtesy of Softeq

Spring cohort announced for Houston tech company's startup accelerator

ready to grow

A Houston tech company has announced the latest cohort of its accelerator program, bringing the total number of startups supported by the company to 63.

Softeq Development Corp., a technology services development company, named 14 new startups joining its three-month spring Softeq Venture Studio cohort.

“We are so proud of the success we have had with the Softeq Venture Studio, helping to support and secure funding for 63 startups to date through the Softeq Venture Fund," says Christopher A. Howard, founder and CEO of Softeq. "With 23 of 89 founders coming from outside of the U.S., we demonstrate Houston’s growing influence as a startup hub where entrepreneurs can find a welcoming innovation community, a strong talent base, and world-class research facilities."

The spring 2023 cohort for Softeq includes:

  • Houston-based AIM7, data intelligence platform that unlocks wearable and mHealth data to provide customized and predictive wellness solutions.
  • Avendly, based in Providence, Rhode Island, makes robotic automation for restaurants to help, not supplant humans. Its first of many products is Mixibot, an integrated back-bar cocktail vending system.
  • Founded in Austin, ClioVis, is meeting today’s content-creator students where they are and how they learn. The company provides unique experiential learning tools designed for today’s content-creator students who learn by doing, not lectures.
  • Based in Tel Aviv, Israel, Flometrica, is a digital health solution featuring "use anywhere" devices to remotely monitor and diagnose various urinary tract problems through analysis of different urine parameters.
  • Gophr, from Lake Charles, Louisiana, is a technology-driven logistics company that provides tailored and efficient delivery solutions for various industries, individuals, and businesses of all sizes.
  • Chicago-based KarChing puts cash in teens’ hands for safe driving. The only app built for parents, teens, and insurance companies that rewards drivers for phone- and distraction-free behavior behind the wheel.
  • Houston-founded Meander collects travel customer satisfaction micro-surveys as people go about their trips. The research platform rewards travelers for sharing their pics, videos, and insights.
  • MEedia, based in Sacramento, California, puts a professional press conference event in your pocket. Individuals can create broadcast-worthy interactive shareable content with just their phone.
  • MeterLeader, from Huntington Beach, California, gamifies saving energy in homes by using real-time utility data and behavioral science. We're like a Fitbit challenge for your home, but instead of steps we measure kWh, therm, and CO2 reductions.
  • Houston-based PayOnDelivery, integrates secure payment with delivery for markets like Craigslist and Facebook. It’s low-hassle, fraud-free buying and selling for peer-to-peer marketplaces.
  • Another Lake Charles business, Picasso Analytics has a platform that can reduce delays and save oil refiners and petrochem owners 10 to 15 percent on multi-million dollar turnaround events by providing a single source of truth integrating the schedule, time entry, and shop status.
  • Sarasota, Florida-based Toivoa develops software-based therapies for people with disabilities who experience mental health disorders. On track for FDA approval, the platform is prescription-based, clinically validated, and delivered on your phone.
  • UpBrainery Technologies, founded in Houston, helps students explore careers through digital experiences. AI guides their interests in career paths and credentials their achievements for employers and colleges.
  • Also from Houston, WellWorth (https://wellworthapp.com/), is a financial modeling SaaS platform that helps upstream oil and gas finance leaders improve their decision-making around raising, managing, and deploying capital.

Softeq Venture Studio launched over a year ago with its inaugural cohort in 2021, and the fund was launched last year. Since launch, Softeq has raised 80 percent of its inaugural $40 million Softeq Venture Fund and made investments in 63 startups. Softeq has also reformatted its accelerator program to include two cohort classes per year, allowing for more time to be spent with the Venture Studio and its cohort startups.

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.