There was collective heartbreak in Houston when the Federal Government announced the end of NASA as we know it. When they cancelled the Space Shuttle program and the Constellation program, it left a hole in our identity, and a lot of unemployed engineers south of town. I contemplated all of this as I drove down I-45 last week for the ribbon-cutting of the new Johnson Space Center [JSC] Acceleration Center. As an inner-looper, I was aware of the economic problems in Clear Lake, but it only hit home when a friend relocated there (because “the houses are so cheap”). She told me that every house in every direction was for sale or foreclosed.
I lamented my friend’s woes to a colleague who told me that Houston Technology Center [HTC] was launching a new incubator project at JSC. Just think, all those brilliant minds feasting on new problems. And I asked why we didn’t anticipate this? Why did it have to come to such depressing times for our neighbors just south of us – unemployment, housing crisis – before it dawned on someone to nurture that talent into something BIG and positive? After all, we’re Houston. We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and figure out how to help each other. He reminded me, “Because only out of catastrophe comes innovation.”
So when I received an email inviting me to attend the ribbon-cutting of the new Acceleration Center at JSC, I was surprised that there wasn’t more fanfare. I expected news vans and reporters but it was a quiet affair. Business as usual, right up to Building 35. That’s where I first felt a buzz of energy. Someone had taken a 50 year old beige building and decorated it with splashes of “google”esque decor. Rooms with names like ‘chromatic,’ ‘cube garden,’ and ‘E.T.’ had bright colored furniture and Scandinavian designs – I kept looking for the ball pit.
Walter Ulrich, President and CEO of the Houston Technology Center, welcomed the 50+ attendees with a smile. “When you walk in this building, it’s inspiring,” he said. “We recognize opportunity here with the transition of the space program; with the talent and people who have served our space program for 10 and 20 years. This is the largest pool of technology talent to become available in 25 years. And we also recognize the opportunity for commercial development within these technologies.”NRG President, Tom Gross, echoed Ulrich’s inspirational statements. The Johnson Space Center, he said, “is a magical place. It’s where we’ve made the most profound journeys as a human race.”
The purpose of this joint effort between HTC and JSC is to foster collaboration and development with academia, aerospace and non-aerospace industries, other federal agencies, and the public by incubating and accelerating the growth of emerging technologies. Both parties work with small to mid-sized technology companies to help them commercialize new life-changing technologies, drawing upon the expertise in the NASA/JSC community.
We met Dr. Frank McCullough and Chris Shiver, the first two clients of the HTC JSC campus. Dr. McCullough has just taken his first consumer product to market with DiamonDown. He developed a lightweight, thermal insulation that has been used in both the Adirondack circle and Antarctic circle. This insulation can be applied to basics (like hoods and underwear) marketed to hunters to a line of sportswear for the adventurous golfer. McCollough says that the JSC Acceleration Center has helped him with networking opportunities, especially since he was new to the consumer product market.
Much like the HTC JSC itself, serial entrepreneur Chris Shiver found inspiration in devastation. So he is working with space shuttle heat shield material to create a high tech safe with protection from heat, fire and water. “Loss of pictures, personal belongings, and generational family treasures is one of the deepest, longest lasting pains a person can experience.In almost every disaster – the one thing people desperately seek is a connection to their family and the past … pictures, scrapbooks, heirlooms.” His company, DreamSaver, won third place in the Houston Technology Center’s Goradia Innovation Contest just months ago, and their CEO, Dr. Scott Parazynski, is also a five-time astronaut. If we can develop a shield that protects the shuttle entering space, surely we can keep our keepsakes safe during natural disasters.
“It’s been a difficult and unsettling period over the last three years with the cancellation of Space Shuttle and Constellation program,” said Mike Coats, Director of the Johnson Space Center. “But we couldn’t ask for more support from the Houston community, and it’s made a difference. We have the entrepreneurial spirit. The people in our city encourage entrepreneurs, and we reward people who take risks.”