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Entrepreneurship Launches into Space Technology With New MSTC Program

By Andrew Faught

Space shuttle on UT Tower

After spending his working life as an agent for A-list Hollywood film directors, Jason Anderson, MSTC '16, is looking to an entirely different set of stars for career inspiration.

The Austin resident is among the inaugural group of students enrolled in a new space entrepreneurship degree program, part of the Master of Science in Technology Commercialization (MSTC) program offered by the McCombs School of Business. The McCombs program is the first of its kind in the country.

"This is a way to reengage and reinvent myself," says Anderson, 46. "Austin is a center for new ideas, and I want to be a part of that."

Students are working to identify cutting-edge technologies with market potential, including NASA creations that the space administration is hoping to license and commercialize. Eighty-two students are enrolled in the program, which started in May and takes three semesters to complete.

"We thought that Austin could do in space what it did successfully and successively in computers, software, gaming and, more recently, biomedical," says Gary Cadenhead director of MSTC, which targets aspiring entrepreneurs who want to launch new ventures based on emerging technologies.

Active military personnel or veterans make up a third of the inaugural class, which is divided into two groups who are using the school's proprietary Quicklooks analysis to consider various new space technologies. Quicklooks involves interviewing industry experts with the goal of developing an assessment of the technologies. Students will complete their appraisals in early August.

"Quicklooks is a 60- to 70-hour process of determining whether anybody would pay for a technology, assuming it does what the inventor thinks it can do," Cadenhead says. "Coming out of that analysis, it's basically a go or no-go decision to commercialize." One technology that's being considered is NASA's "automated vision test," a "streamlined and simplified" process that uses an algorithm to judge eyesight.

Writing business plans and learning how to launch a technology into the marketplace are MSTC hallmarks. "Not only do they gain those skills, but they may find a new space technology that could be the basis for a new company, or it could be something that an existing company would want to incorporate," Cadenhead says.

'New space' industry

Companies comprising the so-called "new space" industry include private firms and entrepreneurs who are working to open space to commercial travel and settlement. Doing so would require a slate of economic activity, everything from creating spacesuits to developing a dedicated tourism industry, says Paul Baffes, chairman of the Greater Austin Space Economy Task Force, a grass-roots effort that pushed for creation of the new degree.

MSTC fills an important void toward growing the new space industry in Austin, says Baffes, who earned his master's and doctoral degrees in computer science from The University of Texas at Austin.

"We've got a lot of technical talent in Texas, but investors will tell you that it's very difficult to find individuals who have business training in space," Baffes says, noting that the master's program could help lure new businesses to Austin. "They’ll know that we also have business talent for them, students who have been through a focused space entrepreneurship program. It makes Austin unique among cities."

Kate Mackie teaches MSTC class

Of the 450 new space companies in the United States, six of them are in Austin, although the number could grow because of the new master's program and the presence of UT's well-regarded aeronautical engineering program, Cadenhead says. The nonprofit advocacy group Space Foundation reports that new space represents a $314 billion market.

Following the state's long history in the space program — in the 1960s the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center near Houston led the Apollo program to land astronauts on the Moon — Texas is poised to make its mark in new space efforts. Among the most high-profile examples, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who has his sights set on colonizing Mars, is building a launch facility near Brownsville while rocket company Blue Origin — founded by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos — conducts its rocket development and testing in West Texas.   

The new MSTC program is expected to figure into developments. With its existing higher education infrastructure, Cadenhead says Austin could become an epicenter for the new space industry — providing mission control facilities, for example —in much the way California's Silicon Valley emerged as a hub for high-tech corporations. 

That kind of foresight has been a hallmark of MSTC for nearly 20 years.

The MSTC program was started in 1996 by former McCombs Dean George Kozmetsky, who was concerned that MBA programs at UT and elsewhere weren't producing graduates who were skilled in identifying and bringing to market new technologies with high potential. Kozmetsky's vision has proven successful, as MSTC sports an impressive track record.

"Twenty years ago we hardly had any biotech companies in Austin; now we have over 200, and it's growing rapidly," Cadenhead says. "In new space, we are looking at both creating new ventures and attracting existing players to expand in Austin."

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