BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Dr. Rick Jenet, director of Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy at UT-Rio Grande Valley, says venture capital is coming to South Texas to develop space exploration technology.
Jenet, founder of the Spacecraft Tracking and Astronomical Research into Giga-hertz Astrophysical Transient Emission (STARGATE) program, spoke to members of Congress that visited the Arecibo Remote Command Center at UTRGV on Friday.
He said space exploration is becoming a less expensive endeavor thanks to new technologies being invented and how private companies such as SpaceX are leading the way. He said South Texas is at the forefront.
“Silicon Valley is already touting this region as being a mecca for new space, in terms of what is going on with SpaceX and what is going on down here in STARGATE,” Jenet told the visiting members of Congress.
“An interesting indicator of private space exploration and the changes that are happening is that a lot of venture capital has been invested in the new space effort,” Jenet told lawmakers. “Overall, private investment is about $16 billion, but venture capital is coming in at around $3.5 billion to almost $4 billion.”
Jenet said the “neat thing” about venture capital is that it is “kind of space agnostic.” He said venture capitalists care about a return on their money, so they want to see that a business plan is solid and there is a way to get a return on their investment.
“What we are seeing now is, instead of space being fueled by governments, we are now getting to the point where the technology being developed for space can add value to the rest of our knowledge directly and venture capitalists can see the capability of having real returns from these types of (private) companies.”
Interviewed by the Rio Grande Guardian about venture capitalists investing in projects and technologies being developed in South Texas, Jenet said: “There is a new venture capital firm that is called New Space Capital which is basically centered on the South Texas region and it is basically getting investors from the region, the U.S. and Mexico, such that we can promote new space technology development, especially technologies that are at the intersection of oil and gas and space exploration. There has not been. It is something that is just getting started. I am confident this is going to move forward. The first deals will probably happen at the end of the year. That will be very exciting. It is exciting to see all this happening.”
There are about 20 students in the STARGATE program. Some of them were at the presentation made by Jenet to the members of Congress. Jenet started the presentation by saying he and his students were just winding down from “an amazing event” held earlier in the week.
“It was something called Rockets & Rigs. This is an initiative led by the Center, all throughout Texas and the nation. The idea is to get members of the oil and gas industry talking with the new space and space exploration community. There are a lot of similarities and a lot of overlaps and the idea was to get together and talk about common challenges, and to develop a road map for technology and innovation,” Jenet explained.
Jenet then spoke about “new space” and a new name he has coined for South Texas.
“New Space is this idea that private companies are now going into space. The old paradigm was that it was big governments, if you wanted to go into space you had to go through the United States government or the Russian government. The Chinese and India are also getting into the game now. Recently, that has been changing, led by space policy. For the United States to remain competitive in space exploration we have to have a strong commercial space component.”
Jenet then showed the visiting members of a Congress a photo of SpaceX taking a Tesla motorcar into space. He said it could easily be one of Time magazine’s photos of the century.
“It shows how amazing the times are. It is really innovation that is driving these changes. We are making substantial changes to our technology, such that the barriers to entering space are being significantly decreased.”
Jenet then brought the subject of new space and space exploration back to South Texas. SpaceX is currently building a rocket launching facility at Boca Chica beach, just outside of Brownsville.
“The neat thing about this and what is so neat about the Brownsville area and especially the students that are in this room is we are not really watching this from the sidelines. It is amazing technical innovation that is setting the fate of new space in many different ways. We are seeing the new technology is working, it is getting cheaper to get into space,” Jenet said.
“These successes are also directly impacting our lives down here. Thanks to a decision made by SpaceX, thanks to a new emerging university (UTRGV) and its first center of excellence, the Center of Advanced Radio Astronomy, and thanks to the State of Texas, we are moving one step in the direction of a vision, a dream of new space in South Texas. I am hoping to one day welcome you all to New Space City, South Texas, a key component of the space corridor, leading from Mexico up into Texas to Houston.”
Jenet boldly stated that the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy is “spearheading” new space innovation in Texas. He also said student success at CARA is of the upmost priority because it is gearing those students for future careers in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
“We are also going to be introducing new degree programs. A professional master’s program, Space Science Technology and Commercialization, is being developed to align with the needs of our students, together with the needs of the space industry and new space companies that are forming,” Jenet announced.
He added that STARGATE aims to be the forefront for new space innovation, developing technologies for space exploration and related areas.
“Commercialization is an important piece of this. We know that if you develop great ideas and put them on the shelf in a university, it does not help people all that much. Commercialization is pushing things from the laboratory into companies,” Jenet said, adding that strategic partnerships between CARA and new, emerging, and existing companies is critical and is happening.
In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian after his presentation, Jenet was asked how the STARGATE program was developing.
I think things are working really well with STARGATE,” Jenet said. “We have a New Space Technology Innovation Program, co-located with the SpaceX launch center, at Boca Chica Beach. We are really excited about the way things are moving ahead. One of the great things that is going to be happening, is we are going to be attracting students in South Texas that are interested in STEM careers. More and more we are seeing the student excitement. We are changing the culture down here, where, not only are students wanting to come into the programs, but when they complete their programs, they want to stay here and continue to use their skills and develop technology down here in South Texas. That is one of the dreams and visions of STARGATE, to create that foundation so these budding entrepreneurs and researchers and scientists, not only would be trained here with world class experts but also have the opportunity to stay here and create this snowball effect as we bring South Texas to be known as New Space City.”
Asked where the term New Space City comes from, Jenet said: “It derives from our friends and partners in Houston, which is known as Space City, and we are developing with them this concept of the new space corridor, leading from South Texas up into the Houston area. Really, the grander vision is with our partners down in Mexico. Nuevo Leon is an area where Mexico is very strong for new space. There are a lot of partnerships we want to develop in that area. We already have a partnership being developed in Tamaulipas with Instituto Tecnológico de Matamoros, which is part of the ARCC project. Their students were recently brought in last year and we have been working with professors over there to get their students involved.”
Jenet also referenced a partnership developing with CONACYT, the Mexican National Science Foundation, and the UT System. “We are leveraging that program, to build relationships down here, to grow this region of knowledge with our Mexican friends and the United States.”
Asked about a new facility CARA is building near the SpaceX rocket launching facility at Boca Chica, Jenet said: “It is a 15,000 square foot facility. I call it an innovation plaza. There is some office space in there but most of it is open and reconfigurable, so we can bring in different technologies and experiment and change the space as needed. We are expecting to have a lot of students and faculty there, working on different projects, with our industry partners on sponsored research. We are promoting technology development associated with space and space exploration but also, as we were mentioning earlier, the concept of rockets and rigs where we are bringing together the oil and gas industry and space exploration. So, we will also be developing dual-use technology as well. Our Blue Energy program is moving ahead and hopefully within the next couple of years we will have prototypes out in the Gulf as we attempt to extract power from ocean waves.”
Jenet had been asked about STARGATE’s interactions with SpaceX. On this subject, Jenet told the Rio Grande Guardian: “We are just getting started. The future is very exciting. The future is in place. Things are moving within new space. The private sector is moving ahead in space exploration. The barriers of getting into space are decreasing considerably, such that more and more people are going to get involved in space. Consider what the Internet was in the 1980s. It was just universities. It was not until it was sort of unleashed to the private sector, such that more and more people could get involved that it really took off and exponentially exploded to what we have today, this developing network which surprises us with innovations on a daily basis. I expect the same things are going to happen with space over the next ten years.”
All of which bodes well for students in the Rio Grande Valley and Mexican cities such as Matamoros that come through the STARGATE program.
“They are going to have great jobs and great jobs down here in New Space City, South Texas. They are going to have great jobs that they, themselves, have created, as our entrepreneurs develop new startups. And as we move forward with attracting venture capital down here in the South Texas region, all of these things are definitely going to happen.”