Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Campbell of HAN and The Artemis Fund, Larry Lawson of Proxima Clinical Research, and Vanessa Wyche of the Johnson Space Center. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from medical device development to fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and general partner at The Artemis Fund

Local investment leader talks trends in Houston venture capital activity

Stephanie Campbell joins the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share some trends in early-stage investing. Photo courtesy of HAN

There were so many question marks at the beginning of the pandemic, especially for startup funding. Stephanie Campbell, who manages the most active angel network as well as a venture capital fund, says no one was sure how anything was going to pan out. Now, looking back on last year, VC did ok, she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and the Houston Angel Network saw membership growth.

"I think that given the markets with quite a bit of liquidity, people were looking for new and interesting ways to invest and make a return," Campbell says on the podcast. "In 2020, we actually grew by 30 percent and are up to 130 members of the Houston Angel Network and are continuing to grow through 2021."

Campbell shares more of her observations on the show and what she's focused on next. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima Clinical Research

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

When Larry Lawson started his career in the medical device industry, it was hard to get funding. The health tech founder and investor says if it wasn't oil or real estate, banks couldn't understand well enough to make a loan. So, he bootstrapped, raised from friends and family, and found venture capital support for his business endeavors over the years. Now, he's celebrating a $1.4 billion exit of his last business, Preventice Solutions, a deal that closed earlier this year.

The ecosystem in Houston has changed, he says, and he's seen it evolve as the Texas Medical Center grew and the Rice Business Plan Competition brought impressive student innovators from all around the globe.

"The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world," he tells InnovationMap. "It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it." Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wyche, director of Johnson Space Center

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

For the first time, NASA has a Black woman at the helm of a space center. Vanessa Wyche has been named director of Johnson Space Center in Houston after serving as acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors. Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

Houston's Johnson Space Center names history-making new director

local leader

NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston has witnessed a universe of history-making moments. There's now another milestone to add to the list.

On June 30, Vanessa Wyche was named director of Johnson Space Center, becoming the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Wyche had been acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors.

"As the home to America's astronaut corps, International Space Station mission operations, the Orion and Gateway programs, and a host of future space developments, Johnson is a world leader in human space exploration and is playing a key role in the next giant leaps in American excellence in space," Wyche says. "I look forward to working with everyone as we push forward to the moon and inspire a new generation of explorers to reach for the stars."

Before being named acting director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche had been deputy director since August 2018. Wyche, a 31-year NASA veteran, also has served as assistant director of the center and director of the center's Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, worked in the executive office of the NASA administrator, served as a flight manager for several space shuttle missions, and has led other center-level technical organizations and programs. The South Carolina native holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Clemson University.

Wyche succeeds Mark Geyer as director of Johnson Space Center. Geyer stepped down in May to focus on his cancer treatment. He had led the center since 2018 as its 12th director. In a video released in May, Geyer said he had been coping with an unidentified form of cancer for about 12 months.

Geyer remains with NASA as a senior adviser to the agency's associate administrator.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson simultaneously announced Wyche's appointment and Janet Petro's appointment as director of Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Both Vanessa and Janet are exceptional leaders who will help propel NASA forward as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before," Nelson says. "It's an incredible time at NASA, and with Vanessa and Janet leading the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, NASA will embark on a new era of space exploration — starting with the Artemis I launch to the moon later this year."

Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, became NASA administrator in May following his nomination by President Biden. During his congressional tenure, Nelson was one of NASA's staunchest advocates and even flew aboard the Columbia space shuttle. He succeeds acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Jurczyk ran the agency after the departure of Bridenstine in January, at the end of the Trump presidency.

In 2019, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar reported the nearly 1,700-acre Johnson Space Center generates an economic impact of $4.7 billion in Texas and supports more than 52,000 jobs.

"NASA's history is intertwined with Texas' history, grit, and can-do spirit, and NASA's future in Texas will be crucial in building tomorrow's Texas economy," Hegar said at the time.

At a recent virtual event, experts discussed the hard tech wave that's coming for Houston. Photo via Getty Images

A hard tech revolution is coming, and Houston is primed to play a role in it

diving into deep tech

The past couple decades of innovation has been largely defined by software — and its been a bit of a boom. However, lately it's become evident that it's time for hardware innovation to shine.

At the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, a few hard tech innovators joined a virtual discussion on the future of hardware — and what Houston's role will be in it.

When it comes to advancing technology for humankind, Adam Sharkawy, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Material Impact, a HXVF portfolio fund, says it's time to expand the walls of what is possible.

"Unlike other types of technologies that may facilitate the possible, deep and hard technologies expand what is in the realm of the possible," he says on the panel. "Software has caught up, and we need a new deep tech wave."

And the future looks promising, as Sharkawy says he's seen hard tech grow over the past 5 to 7 years by about 22 percent. Nic Radford, president and CEO of Houston Mechatronics agrees it's time to shift the focus to hard tech.

"The Information Age was the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but now we need to uncover the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world is," he says. "And we need to make those investments toward that."

But investments seem, at least in the recent past, harder to come by for hard tech startups compared to software companies with quick exit strategies.

"Deep tech is traditionally thought of as requiring deep pockets," Sharkawy says.

Radford says there was over $167 billion in capital deployments last year, and only 8 percent of that went to industrial or hard tech. Hardware, he says, is tougher to evaluate, they take longer to exit and are tougher to scale.

"To me that's what makes them a gold mine," Radford adds. "It's an underserved market for sure, and that's because we're tougher to evaluate."

Something to note though, he continues, is that hard tech is going to have a bigger societal impact, but maybe it's not the one with the biggest return.

"I think corporates have an special role to play in the inevitability of hard tech," Radford says. "They aren't completely motivated by financial returns."

Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, says he's had a different experience with raising funds. The Houston entrepreneur has raised over $100 million and is planning to go public soon. He's achieved this by attracting investment from the top VC funds in the country. If you zero in on these powerful funds, you can see they are dedicating more and more funds to this arena. And, he predicts, other VC funds will follow.

"This is a unique time for hardware companies to go and and raise from the top venture capitals of the world," Chakrabarti says.

The city of Houston, with its firm footing in the energy and space industries has an important role to play in this new era.

"The Houston area has all the key ingredients to be an innovation hub — no question," Sharkawy says.

The panelists identified Houston's fine education institutions, major corporations present, access to talent, and more as indicators for success. But the innovation here needs to continue to develop intentionally.

"I'd love to see Houston not try to copycat into a general tech hub," Sharkawy says. "Instead it would be great for Houston leverage its unique position as a leader in energy and space and help its constituents of more traditional energy — big corporates, for example — transform into the new frontier."

Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says she's seen the space industry take off as the field becomes more and more commercialized. And locally there's a lot of potential for Houston and all the resources and infrastructure that already exists.

"It's about taking what you're good at, and making it better," she says.

Each of the panelists expressed confidence in this evolving wave of hard tech — and are keeping a close watch on the major players as well as the city of Houston.

"We're going to have to get into the world and do something," Radford says. "That next wave of innovation is specifically interacting with our environment, in my opinion."

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Houston makes play to score soccer innovation

new goal

Houston is kicking up its 2026 FIFA World Cup bid by a notch or two with a new innovative initiative.

The Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee on October 14 committed to establishing the nonprofit Soccer Innovation Institute if Houston becomes a host city for the FIFA World Cup.

"The institute will rely on Houston's spirit of innovation to create a united community investment in building a legacy that goes well beyond the city," according to a news release announcing the potential formation of the nonprofit.

The soccer institute, made up of a network of experts and leaders from various global organizations, would conduct specialized think tanks and would support a series of community programs.

"As the energy capital of the world, the global leader in medicine, the universal headquarters for NASA, and the home to numerous sports tech companies, Houston has an abundance of resources that are unmatched by other cities," Houston billionaire John Arnold, chairman of the 2026 bid committee, says in a news release. "By bringing these organizations together under one umbrella, the Soccer Innovation Institute presents the ultimate opportunity to redefine the player and fan experience, and develop a lasting legacy for the long-term benefit of the FIFA World Cup."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the institute would align with the city's efforts to build a strong ecosystem for innovation, along with its passion for soccer.

"Houston is recognized as a leader in technology and innovation. We have many innovation hubs around the city that bring bright minds into collaborative spaces where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," the mayor says.

Held every four years, the World Cup assembles national men's soccer teams from around the world in one of the most planet's most watched sporting events. The traditional 32-team tournament will expand to 48 teams in 2026. After 2026, the World Cup might be staged every two years.

Among those collaborating on the Houston 2026 bid are NRG, the Texas Medical Center, Shell, Chevron, the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the Council for Responsible Sport, the Houston Dynamo, the Houston Dash, the City of Houston, Harris County, and Houston First.

The FIFA World Cup 2026 will be played in 16 cities across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Houston and Dallas are among the 17 cities vying to become a U.S. host. A final decision is expected in the first half of 2022. If Houston is selected, it will host six World Cup games at NRG Stadium.

Between October 21 and November 1, World Cup delegates will visit eight cities in the running to be North American hosts: Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Monterrey, Mexico.

Why small businesses are a big deal in Pearland

Small Business, Big Success

Here's a fun fact: 82 percent of businesses in Pearland are locally owned.

Besides providing a warm, fuzzy feeling, that fact actually has a big impact on what the the Lower Kirby city has to offer other companies that are looking to relocate.

Understanding that small businesses are vital to the local economy, the Pearland Economic Development Corporation does all it can to support the formation and growth of new businesses.

To gain a better understanding of the needs of local businesses, PEDC recently conducted a survey of all businesses in the community. The survey found that 92 percent of business owners felt that Pearland is a great place to live, work, and operate a business, and more than 80 percent of survey respondents gave excellent or good marks to Pearland as a place to do business — higher than the national comparison.

The city recently launched an online permitting portal that helps emerging businesses navigate the business registration process with a streamlined, easy-to-use interface that can be accessed anywhere, any time.

By answering just a few questions, potential new business owners can see all the necessary requirements and fees. And commercial permits are reviewed and approved within 20 days, on average.

Additionally, PEDC and community partners are creating an Entrepreneurship Hub, which will enhance Pearland's innovation entrepreneurship culture by creating events, programs, and activities for entrepreneurs and small business owners to inspire ideation and entrepreneurship.

The Hub will connect the city to local and regional entrepreneurship assistance programs, service providers, and funding sources to help businesses maximize their growth potential and overall success. Offerings of the Hub will include business plan competitions, proactive coaching, networking events, and student programs.

In addition to the resources offered, many small businesses that have relocated to Pearland cite the safety of the community and ease of access via multiple thoroughfares as top reasons that led them to the community.

Brask Neela, a small business founded in Louisiana, constructed a new manufacturing facility in Pearland to custom fabricate heat transfer equipment on 9.45 acres in Pearland's Industrial Drive Business Park. After its move to the Pearland area, the company can better service petrochemical and chemical customers in Texas City, Freeport, and Baytown, as well as global clients.

In addition to PEDC's assistance with land acquisition and attractive incentives, Brask Neela was drawn to the location's proximity to the workforce, the area's infrastructure, and open communications with the City of Pearland.

"Pearland provided incentives, proximity to workforce both for shop and office, infrastructure, and clear communication to address any needs with city officials," says Kevin Sareen, Brask Neela's business development manager.

Rollac Shutters manufactures exterior rolling shutters, solar zip shades, and awnings, and opened a 105,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility that allowed the company to engage in environmentally responsible manufacturing practices and integrate sustainability principles in its day-to-day operations.

"As a family-owned business, location and incentives were most important to us," says Eva Konrad, vice president at Rollac Shutters. "Pearland offered both and we love it here."

Houston-area school scores top 10 status in Texas

star pupils

A Houston-area school earned top honors in Texas in U.S. News & World Report's first-ever ranking of the state's best elementary schools.

Creekside Forest Elementary School comes in at No. 10. Creekside is nestled in the bustling Woodlands and in the Tomball Independent School District.

A public school, Creekside Forest Elementary boasts student population of 571, serving serves kindergarten through fifth grade. Impressively, according to the report, 93 percent of students here scored at or above the proficient level for math, and 87 percent scored at or above that level for reading.

Notably, the student-teacher ratio is at Creekside is 16:1, which is better than that of the district. The school employs 36 equivalent full-time teachers and one full-time school counselor.

The student population at Creekside is made up of 49 percent female students and 51 percent male students, with minority student enrollment at 43 percent. One percent of students here at economically disadvantaged.

According to the school's website, Creekside "is a learning community where all continuously strive for excellence."

Unlike its annual list of the country's best high schools, U.S. News & World Report didn't come up with a national ranking of elementary schools. Rather, it published a ranking for each state.

Myriad other Houston-area schools land later on the list, including West University Elementary at No. 17. According to U.S. News, the 10 best elementary schools in Texas are:

  1. William B. Travis Academy/Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted, Dallas ISD.
  2. Windsor Park G/T Elementary School, Corpus Christi ISD.
  3. Old Union Elementary School, Carroll ISD.
  4. Carroll Elementary School, Carroll ISD.
  5. Hudson Elementary School, Longview ISD.
  6. Sudie L. Williams Talented and Gifted Academy, Dallas ISD.
  7. Canyon Creek Elementary School, Round Rock ISD.
  8. Carver Center, Midland ISD.
  9. Cactus Ranch Elementary School, Round Rock ISD.
  10. Creekside Forest Elementary School, Tomball ISD.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.