Austin Chamber, UT Target Space Startups as the Next Frontier

Houston, you have a competitor.

Or, at least, another Texas metro area that wants to get in on the space game. Houston, home to NASA’s fabled space program, remains the center-of-the-universe when it comes to space innovation in most people’s minds. But with the advent of a growing private-sector space industry, economic clusters like Austin are hoping to see some action themselves. To that end, the University of Texas at Austin announced early this month that it will add a master’s degree in space entrepreneurship beginning in May.

“Austin has a history of starting with a small group and growing it into a critical mass,” says Gary Cadenhead, director of the Master of Science in Technology Commercialization Program (MSTCP) at the University of Texas at Austin, which will administer the space program. “We’ve done it in IT, done it in gaming technology. Right now the biotech community has become significant and that’s just over the last 10 years.”

Cadenhead and others say the next cluster to emerge amid Austin’s innovation ecosystem could be one with companies related to space. Along with UT’s new program, Innovate Austin, a program run by the Austin Chamber of Commerce, also announced that the chamber has made space technology and exploration—in particular innovations related to satellites, spacecraft components, and robotics—a target of its economic development initiatives.

“The emerging commercial space economy adds to the diversity of business in our region and has the potential to create additional opportunities for other sectors like cloud technology, energy, and medicine,” says Phil Wilson, Opportunity Austin’s board chairman and the general manager of the public utility, the Lower Colorado River Authority.

At UT, Cadenhead says they hope to have about 100 students enrolled in the program by its start this spring and that program managers are speaking to various space-related businesses and institutions like NASA that might have employees interested in coming to campus.

“We’re going to actively recruit from the space community to try to get individuals who are interested in space technologies to come into the program and to get some companies in the industry who would like to send a team of their engineers or business people into the program,” Cadenhead says.

The MSTCP program graduated its first class in 1996; students were given instruction on how to identify innovations that have market potential and the best ways to bring them to the market. Among the companies that UT has worked with in the program are giants like IBM and smaller, sector specific firms like National Oilwell Varco, an oilfield drilling equipment maker. “This includes identifying opportunities for a major business to expand into a new area based on an emerging technology as well as people who want to start new ventures within existing businesses,” Cadenhead says.

So far, the Austin area is home to only a handful of private space companies, such as Firefly Space Systems, a small satellite company that last year moved to an Austin suburb from California. In January, Firefly said it had entered into an agreement with NASA facilities in Houston and Huntsville, AL, to work together in the development of the company’s “Alpha” launch vehicle.

“The knowledge-base of (NASA), and the access to them…is of significant value to Firefly, and indeed the entire new space community,” Firefly co-founder and CEO Tom Markusic said in a statement. “It’s a great program that will help Firefly to more rapidly mature our vehicle design.”


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