The Shining Star of South Texas: The Rise of Expanding Fronters

The Shining Star of South Texas: The Rise of Expanding Fronters

For more than 60 years, NASA has explored and studied the universe to advance human understanding and seek innovative solutions that benefit us all. This depth of experience is now powering the commercial space industry and helping grow the low-Earth Orbit economy

Elon Musk alongside Dr. Jenet
Elon Musk alongside Dr. Jenet break ground on a new commercial launch site in Brownsville, Texas (now known as Starbase) with UTRGV leadership on Sept. 22, 2014.

This period saw the start of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), a shift towards leveraging American ingenuity and open innovation through partnerships with private entities like Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX to develop next-generation crew transport vehicles to the International Space Station (ISS).

Simultaneously, in the heart of South Texas, a parallel story of transformation and innovation was taking shape, led by Dr. Fredrick Jenet. Before SpaceX made its historic decision to select Brownsville, Texas, as the site for its new launch facility in August 2014, Dr. Jenet had already prepared the ground for a significant advance in space science, technology education, and entrepreneurship via the Center of Advanced Radio Astronomy (CARA).

UTRGV Students and faculty pose for a photo
UTRGV Students and faculty pose for a photo as the ribbon is cut at the STARGATE facility at the SpaceX launch facility on March 19, 2019. The building is now the center of operations for launches at SpaceX’s Boca Chica site.

The establishment of the STARGATE project, which housed CARA, funded in part by the State of Texas and the Economic Development Administration (EDA), was a cornerstone in this narrative. It aimed to bridge academia and the emerging commercial space economy, fostering entrepreneurship, and creating startups to drive regional growth.

These early efforts at the University of Texas at Brownsville (now part of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV) established a model for using space science as a catalyst for socio-economic development that would later lead Dr. Jenet to launch a new pathway for entrepreneurs, Expanding Frontiers.

As NASA’s purview expanded to include collaboration with commercial space and spurring innovation on Earth, initiatives like this in south Texas became critical partners, and support systems inside the agency emerged. NASA's Technology Transfer Program launched the StartUp NASA initiative, aiming to eliminate barriers for startups by offering access to a vast portfolio of patented technologies without upfront costs.

Participants of Rockets and Rigs present their posters
Participants of Rockets and Rigs present their posters on the final day of the 2-day hackathon.

This program was perfectly aligned with the team’s ambitions, creating a unique opportunity for fostering high-tech businesses and advancing American innovation in regions ripe for economic development, like South Texas.

Startup NASA would eventually be expanded upon in 2020 with the inauguration of Technology Transfer Expansion (T2X), which accelerates the commercialization of NASA-developed technologies and new venture creation through strategic partnerships, entrepreneurial activities, and engagement with academia. T2X falls under the NASA Technology Transfer program.

Ribbon-cutting of Expanding Frontiers
City staff, supporters, and members of the community celebrate at the ribbon-cutting of Expanding Frontiers in the historic Pan American building in Brownsville, TX, Thursday, July 11, 2019.

With growing interest from within the agency and the surrounding community, Dr. Jenet identified a prime opportunity to pilot a concept for an independent, open entrepreneurship incubation program, utilizing Startup NASA: Rockets-n-Rigs. This initiative aimed to stimulate the creation of startups through the cross-pollination of technology between the aerospace and energy sectors. It showcased a deep comprehension of the synergy between NASA's technological advancements and the enhancement of regional economies.

Capitalizing on this alignment, the team founded Expanding Frontiers in 2019 as a non-profit designed to serve as an incubator for space-centric entrepreneurship and innovation. This initiative not only stood on the legacy of CARA and STARGATE but also embraced the StartUp NASA initiative, forging a symbiotic relationship that catalyzed the development of startups in South Texas. Expanding Frontiers, located in the historic Pan Am building at the Brownsville airport, became a symbol of this new era of space innovation.

Through a series of collaborative efforts, including the Rockets-n-Rigs program and a partnership with the NASA Technology Transfer Program, Expanding Frontiers has laid the foundation for a thriving space industry ecosystem in South Texas. This region, once overlooked, is now at the forefront of the "New Space" era, poised to benefit from SpaceX's planned $150 million expansion of the Brownsville-Boca Chica Spaceport.

Winners of the ExF Category of the Technology and Commercial Space Pitch Competition hosted by Expanding Frontiers.
Winners of the ExF Category of the Technology and Commercial Space Pitch Competition hosted by Expanding Frontiers.

During the 2-day Rockets and Rigs Hack-a-thon, teams tapped their extended networks to validate the markets for the technologies, captured the state of the art of similar technologies, and offered markets not previously considered by NASA. A unique framework emerged to accelerate the process from an initial introduction of the technology to a team to a clear strategy for market penetration and market impact by NASA technology. Following the event, participants were self-selected into six startups, three of which went on to incorporate in the State of Texas and license NASA Technology. 

Following the success of this event, the city of Brownsville helped to formally launch The Expanding Frontiers Innovation Hub and housed them in the historic Pan Am building at the Brownsville, Texas airport. Expanding Frontiers also entered into a Space Act Agreement with the NASA Technology Transfer Program at the Johnson Space Center as a concierge of NASA Technologies. The non-profit is committed to novel educational experiences and hands-on training for students, veterans, and aspiring entrepreneurs. Their mission is to create and accelerate the growth of an innovation ecosystem with a focus on space and energy technology.

Expanding Frontiers has hugely impacted Brownsville's once nascent commercial space industry, growing it into a promising robust part of the regional economy. Jenet's forward-looking vision to approach two industry challenges with complementary tech and leverage Startup NASA has provided a unique opportunity for future generations of engineers and entrepreneurs. 

Pitch at the Startup Texas Pitch Competition
Since its inception, ExF has launched over 12 startups using NASA technologies to help approach challenges on Earth. Many of ExF’s companies go on to win top spots at regional and state-level pitch competitions. DeCon Environmental and Aetherworks pitch at the Startup Texas Pitch Competition in Brownsville, Texas in October 2023. (On right) William Brown and co-founder Lee Martinez take 1st place at the Rafael Munguia Business Pitch Competition hosted at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in April 28, 2022.

The team’s vision and tireless drive for innovation reshapes South Texas into a shining example of space science and entrepreneurship, closely aligning with NASA's goal of encouraging commercial space development. The recent inauguration of the Expanding Frontiers Tech Trek program, in collaboration with NASA T2X, is a pivotal development in this journey. Building on Expanding Frontiers' extensive experience with tech entrepreneurs in South Texas and connecting them with NASA technology, this initiative is set to catalyze further growth.

"We are working diligently towards establishing South Texas as a central hub of space innovation," said Dr. Jenet, “As we advance, the synergy between Expanding Frontiers and NASA's initiatives epitomizes the immense power strategic partnerships have in steering the future of space exploration and regional economic upliftment. Through these concerted actions, South Texas is not merely a spectator in the ‘New Space’ era but a key participant, turning a new page in humanity's celestial journey.”

Dr. Fredrick Jenet recently spoke on the Startup NASA Feature Series, view the recording here.

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