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After a turbulent two years, a Ballston-based weightless flight company named ZERO-G is once again ready for take-off.
The company, with its administrative headquarters at 4601 N. Fairfax Drive, announced a recent financing round led by private equity firm Rock Mountain Capital. ZERO-G’s CEO Matt Gohd said this investment will help purchase another plane, add more takeoff cities for its consumer flight program, and support the company’s renowned weightless research lab.
Founded in 1995, ZERO-G chartered its first specially modified Boeing 727 boasting a “microgravity experience” in 2004, and has since hosted scientists and celebrities from Stephen Hawking and Buzz Aldrin to Kate Upton and Martha Stewart. Early investors and riders included Tesla founder Elon Musk and Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. ZERO-G has also conducted 211 research missions on its Federal Aviation Administration-approved planes, leading to major advances in multiple industries.
“Our goal is to provide the most accessible, most unique extraordinary experience that someone could have — literally, floating like an astronaut in ZERO-G — while being able to support growing research in microgravity,” Gohd said.
The upward trajectory came to a halt in 2019, when the company had major issues that kept the planes grounded, according to the CEO. The financial distress was so extreme that the company could not make payroll and in November, the previous CEO resigned and Gohd took the helm.
The new CEO raised a “rescue round” of funding, began charting a new course for the company, and watched the first plane of his tenure take flight in late January 2020. But one month later, the research staff started talking to him about the coronavirus.
“They said it would be much worse than people thought,” he said.
They were right: Flights were canceled through July 2020 and 90% of staff were furloughed.
But now, with the end of the pandemic in sight, the appetite for microgravity is skyrocketing, he said. ZERO-G resumed operations in August and sold out most flights, a trend that has continued this year.
For about $7,000, people can buy a seat on a flight or for $175,000, companies and groups can charter the entire plane. ZERO-G also makes money from studios shooting movies and commercials on the plane.
“There’s nothing that compares to what we do,” Gohd said.
With the funding he started raising in August, the CEO envisions buying a plane or two to meet this rising demand. The funding will also support research, which he said is the fastest-growing sector of ZERO-G’s operations because of renewed interest in space.
ZERO-G works with NASA and a number of universities to run experiments in microgravity, to see how fluids move or to see how things react in Martian or lunar gravity, both of which ZERO-G can simulate. Outside of ZERO-G, many researchers have no other way to do this work without incurring huge costs, he said.
“We’re the only way to provide an interactive platform for researchers,” he said.
Rock Mountain Capital founder, David Stonehill, now a board member for ZERO-G, commended Gohd for revitalizing the company and credited him for its growth.
“ZERO-G’s unique experience is valued by consumers, corporate customers, entertainment companies, and scientific research teams at NASA and beyond,” Stonehill said in a statement.
(Updated 5:45 p.m.) Washington-Liberty High School senior James Licato is trying to clean up micropollutants in the Potomac River, and he came up with a solution that vaulted him to the finals of a major science competition.
Licato is one of 40 finalists in the Society for Science’s Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021, the nation’s oldest science and math competition for high school seniors. He developed a sandy substance, using zeolites, that acts as a microscopic net, catching the micropollutants that wastewater treatment facilities miss.
Chosen from 1,760 applicants, top finalists each earn $25,000 in scholarships and can nab between $40,000 and $250,000 if they are named in the top 10. This year’s virtual competition goes from March 10-17.
“Regeneron is definitely prestigious,” Licato said. “It feels great.”
Arlington Public Schools last had a senior — from Wakefield High School — make it to the finals in 1997. Washington-Liberty High School last had two students reach the final round in 1976, and have had four in total since 1942, said Society for Science spokeswoman Aparna Paul. Yorktown High School most recently had a finalist in 1996.
Licato credits the APS science staff with connecting him with extracurricular opportunities to present his work. His teachers also helped him work out the logistics of participating in science fairs and ordered materials he needed but could not obtain.
“The APS science department is awesome and has always been really supportive of everything I’ve done,” Licato said.
Licato said his area of research is a growing one, as more people become aware of the toxicity of these micropollutants. Many known pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) are toxic to aquatic organisms and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAs), found in non-stick and water-resistant coatings, can cause a host of diseases in humans, he said.
“The more we study, the more negative effects we find,” he said.
The benefit of his product is that it could be cheap and scalable because it could use the byproduct of coal fire plants, which normally sits in landfills, he said. It will need more testing and engineering work but Licato believes it has the potential to attract federal funding.
A Boy Scout and avid fisher, Licato has always been passionate about water quality and ecology. He won second place in the Earth and Environmental Sciences at the INTEL ISEF competition, also hosted by Society for Science, for his project removing an anti-diabetic medicine from wastewater.
That project introduced him to Thomas Huff, the Director of the Shared Research Instrumentation Facility at George Mason University, who specializes in researching river pollutants. Licato reached out to him because he needed to access a liquid chromatograph-tandem mass spectrometer.
At first, Huff was “highly skeptical,” but the then-sophomore won him over. He said Licato proved to be more adept with the machine than many senior undergraduate students.
Huff offered him an internship drawing and analyzing environmental samples at the Potomac Science Center in Woodbridge. He and a team of graduate researchers at George Mason University were determining the concentrations of PPCPs near wastewater treatment facilities for multiple grant projects.
Licato became a peer of the graduate student researchers, offering new ideas and mastering the software the team used, Huff said. He also developed methods of analyzing data that the other students and professors still use. The lab received a three-year contract to continue studying micropollutants.
“He was a consummate team member and morale booster,” the professor said. “He even taught tricks and tips to a full professor with 35 years of research experience.”
(Updated at 4 p.m.) In just seven weeks, engineering whizzes at Bishop O’Connell High School developed an app that NASA may draw from as it gears up to land the first American woman and next man on the Moon, in preparation for missions to Mars.
This week, NASA recognized them as one of top 10 teams in the 2020 NASA App Development Challenge, which occurred last fall. Students crunched lunar terrain data to create an app that visualizes the South Pole region of the Moon, and NASA will be using aspects of the 10 winning apps for its own program to help astronauts communicate on and navigate the Moon’s surface.
As members of a winning team, DJO students Alex Janninck ’22, Daniel Kippenhan ’22, Elaine Ly ’21 and Claire Toia ’23, as well as Sevginaz Gurleyici ’23, from the Madeira School in McLean will be able to participate in a NASA leadership event in February.
“It takes confidence, drive and a lot of perseverance,” Bishop O’Connell STEM teacher and team advisor Melissa Pore said. “This was incredible to see them achieve this.”
Students developed the app virtually, using “Code With Me” — the Google Docs of collaborative coding — and talked via Discord, a growing communications platform that is popular among gamers and teens. At the height of the challenge, Ly recalls taking notes in class with her right hand and coding with her left.
A NASA official said during a live-stream announcement that the students “displayed great team work by maximizing each team’s strengths in completing both the coding and non-coding aspects of the challenge.”
The odds were stacked against the students: The team barely met the minimum size to participate and the school went fully virtual (due to a COVID-19 outbreak) near the tail-end of the challenge. Team members also did not have app experience, and only Janninck and Ly could code proficiently — so they mentored other members in the coding language Python, Pore said.
“What adult groups would have persevered when they had to learn a new code and train others?” she said.
NASA wants to use this technology “right now,” said Pore, adding that the app can visualize any planet and is suitable for color-blind people.
“Good for NASA to use our smartest levels of students to figure out tricks they wouldn’t have thought of,” she said. “You taught the adults some lessons.”
Ly, who wrote about the news for the school, said she “wouldn’t be half as interested in engineering if it weren’t for [Pore].”
Always learning, Pore became a licensed amateur radio operator to build satellites with her students, and is working with the International Space Station so her students can learn about and access opportunities in aerospace engineering.
A senior headed to George Washington University, Ly nominated Janninck to take charge next year.
“He’s a really good leader and programmer,” she said.
As soon as Janninck finds another interesting challenge, he is willing to try it.
“We do need to get rest from coding and working really hard,” he said.
Especially since the next challenge could be a 24-hour competition to develop a floating settlement to flee to if a meteor strikes Earth.
“No sleep — it sounds wonderful,” Janninck said.
An new tenant in Ballston helps adults in need of a boost to establish foundational computer skills, ultimately expanding their career opportunities.
Called Computer CORE, the educational nonprofit offers courses in Google Suite, email, internet basics, computer security, community college math and similar fields to underserved adults. The classes help workers increase their salary by $10k on average.
The new educational facility will be located in a 3,500 square foot space in the Ballston Exchange complex, across Wilson Blvd from Ballston Quarter mall. The Ballston Business Improvement District coordinated the agreement between Computer CORE and Jamestown, the building’s owner, a press release said.
Overall, Computer CORE has around 150 students, roughly 70 of which will be able to use the new space, according to a spokesperson. In terms of group demographics, around 70% of all enrolled students identify as women and 95% are people of color, according to the organization’s website.
Though the center is only set to remain in the Ballston Exchange through the end of 2020, there is a possibility to extend the agreement, according to a spokesperson.
The location was partially chosen because of its proximity to a Metro station and Ballston’s nearby amenities, Tina Leone, the Ballston BID’s CEO said in the press release.
Computer CORE also offers help with resume review, the job search process and interview prep. Program applicants must live in the Northern Virginia area, be at least 18 years old, be motivated to find a job and have demonstrated need for the classes, according to the website.
Currently, 350 other students are on a waiting list to attend classes, the spokesperson said.
Photo courtesy Ballston BID
An Arlington teen was named as a top 300 finalist in a national science project competition.
Eyuel Berhanu, a rising 9th grader who went to Thomas Jefferson Middle School, is one of the Top 300 MASTERS in the annual Broadcom MASTERS science fair, which is billed as the nation’s premier Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) competition for middle schoolers.
Eyuel, 14, studied mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) in his project. His uncle is a civil engineer, and through him Eyuel became interested in highway entrance ramps and the reinforced dirt that typically supports them.
For his project, Eyuel tested how adding different types of reinforcement to sand affected the sand’s strength.
“We had a little cube with the top open, and filled it with sand then a type of reinforcement,” Eyuel said. “The reinforcement is very strong, so we couldn’t just put weights on it. We had to stand on it, and the most we had was 300 pounds of weight on it and it didn’t crumble.”
Through research, Eyuel identified the most common types of MSE reinforcements used in construction, and tested each. Between metal strips, ladder metal, plastic geogrid and metal mesh, he found geogrid to be the most effective.
The project was based on a paper Eyuel wrote as a part of the Virginia Junior Academy of Science in late 2019. In January 2020, he submitted his work to Thomas Jefferson’s school science fair, and won first prize.
This advanced him to the Northern Virginia regional science fair, where Eyuel placed in the top 10% of competitors and was nominated to Broadcom MASTERS.
From there, he was selected to the top 300 from an applicant pool of 3,476 students. Eyuel said being chosen from such a large group was surreal, and he had trouble believing it when he first read the email telling him the news.
Eyuel said he pursued science projects out of his passion for STEM.
“My love for science and math [got me involved]. I want to be an engineer when I grow up, so that’s what got me into STEM and science projects like this,” Eyuel said.
When Eyuel was in 7th grade, he said he entered his middle school’s science fair and placed third, failing to qualify for regionals. Having now advanced from his school’s fair to the national stage, Eyuel’s dad, Teguwaze Berhanu, said he thinks persistence is a lesson that Eyuel has taken from his journey.
“He worked a lot and he spent a lot of time,” Berhanu said. “He tried in 7th grade and didn’t make it to regionals. And he tried again and did. He learned that by doing things again and again, he can achieve whatever he wants.”
Eyuel is starting as a freshman in Washington-Liberty High School’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program this school year. He said he is looking forward to challenging himself in higher level math and science courses, and is excited to compete in science fairs at the high school level.
Photos courtesy the Berhanu family
ABC’s Good Morning America aired a live segment from Abingdon Elementary in Fairlington Wednesday morning.
More from the GMA website:
…there are limitations to what the nonprofit can do in terms of free programming for girls without additional funding and resources. The cost of computers, batteries for robots, magnets and more of the supplies required to bring these inventive STEM projects to life add up quickly. In Arlington, the group said their waitlist is approximately 300 girls long.
To celebrate the season of giving, Amazon surprised the nonprofit live on “Good Morning America” by fulfilling their entire wish list with these essential supplies – computers, printers, batteries, magnets and much more — all to continue their mission.
Amazon, which is seeking approval for the first 2.1 million square foot phase of its permanent HQ2 in Pentagon City this weekend, has been particularly active in Arlington recently. The company made a large donation of “wish list” items to local affordable housing provider AHC Inc. earlier this week, while its Amazon Web Services arm has been helping to teach students at Drew Elementary coding this week for Computer Science Education Week.
More on the Abingdon broadcast via social media:
— Arlington Public Schools (@APSVirginia) December 11, 2019