ICON Raises $207 Million in Funding to Build Houses on Earth and in Space

ICON CO-Founders Alex Le Roux, Jason Ballard and Evan Loomis, photo courtesy of ICON

ICON, the Austin-based startup that builds homes with its giant 3-D printers using concrete as substrate, has four large-scale 3-D home printers and it has tens of thousands of requests for homes.

“It’s sometimes heartbreaking but you have to decide what to say yes to and what to say no to,” said Jason Ballard, Co-Founder, and CEO of ICON.

That’s one of the reasons ICON sought more funding, Ballard said. The company announced Monday that it has completed a $207 million Series B round of financing led by Norwest Venture Partners. It’s one of the largest fundraising rounds for an Austin-based company in history.

Other investors included 8VC, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, BOND, Citi, Crosstimbers, Ensemble Fifth Wall, LEN Moderne Ventures and Oakhouse Partners.

To date, ICON has raised $266 million since launching three years ago.

With the new funding, ICON will be able to say yes to more projects and will be able to scale up its manufacturing operations, Ballard said. It allows the company to scale up its operations faster, he said. ICON’s new Vulcan construction system can 3D print homes and structures up to 3,000 square feet.

“This is like the Apollo program for the future of the building industry,” Ballard said. ICON is trying to attract the most brilliant engineers, scientists, architects, operators, and leaders, he said.

“We are assembling the Avengers,” Ballard said.

ICON is focused on tackling one of humanity’s most profound problems which is homelessness, but it’s also focused on profound opportunities to build lunar space stations and Mars habitats, Ballard said.

ICON has built about two dozen homes all together in Texas and in Mexico, Ballard said. It teamed up with Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit organization focused on helping Austin’s homeless, last year to build six 3-D printed homes for Community First! Village, a 51-acre master-planned development in Austin.

ICON 3-D printed homes in Tabasco, Mexico, photo courtesy of ICON

In addition to the Mobile Loaves & Fishes project, in 2020, ICON built 3D-printed homes in Mexico alongside nonprofit partner, New Story. ICON also partnered with the Defense Innovation Unit and the United States Marine Corps to train Marines to operate its technology and complete a field demonstration print at Camp Pendleton.

ICON plans to spend half of the money it has raised on scaling operations and the other half on innovation to make its printers even better, Ballard said.

“To make it faster, to make it cheaper, and to improve sustainability,” he said. It was only three years ago that ICON printed the first 3-D house in America, he said.

“And so, we’re still early days and there’s a lot more research and development to be done as well,” Ballard said. “But we didn’t want to wait until all of that was done before putting more houses on the ground for folks because the needs are profound.”

ICON has already doubled its workforce this year to more than 100 employees and plans to double its workforce next year and again the year after that, Ballard said.

ICON has a manufacturing facility in South Austin, and it has enough space to accommodate its growth for the next 18 months but it will most likely need to expand after that, Ballard said.

An ICON 3D-printed Martian analog habitat designed by BIG at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, photo courtesy of ICON

In addition to working to provide more housing, ICON participated in a NASA 3-D habitat building challenge which led to the company being awarded a contract to deliver a 3-D printed habitat, known as Mars Dune Alpha at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. NASA will be using the 3-D habitat for training and is already soliciting applications from people who want to participate in the year-long Mars mission simulations.

ICON also received funding from NASA for “Project Olympus” to create a space-based construction system to support future explorations of the Moon. It’s at the Marshall Space Flight Center as part of the Artemis program, Ballard said.

The space projects started out as a small side project, but now they’ve become so big ICON is hiring entire teams dedicated to work on each one, Ballard said.

“I have the most fantastic job,” Ballard said. “Depending on the day, we’re trying to figure out how to house homeless who are combating housing affordability and then the next day it’s like moon bases.”

ICON is the only company in the world where both of those kinds of efforts in underway in a very serious way, Ballard said.

“Our work with NASA has helped us mature the technology faster,” Ballard said. “The civilization that builds the moon base is going to be the same civilization that finds a way to end homelessness. These things go together, and they are not in competition at least not in our context.”

In the next 90 days, ICON plans to make a “pretty large” announcement for housing in the Austin area, Ballard said. He can’t provide details yet, but soon, he said.

“ICON’s groundbreaking technology has created a new paradigm for homebuilding that fundamentally changes how housing is constructed,” Jeff Crowe, managing partner, Norwest Venture Partners, said in a news release. “The company is already building everything from single-family homes for the homeless all the way to structures for habitation on the moon and Mars.  But we are particularly excited about the opportunity for ICON to collaborate with home builders and massively impact the housing shortage currently plaguing the U.S. We’re thrilled to add ICON to our portfolio of innovative prop-tech leaders and look forward to partnering with the team in the years ahead.”

In early 2021, ICON began building the first 3D-printed homes for sale in America for developer 3Strands. Most recently, ICON debuted its new Exploration Series featuring “House Zero,” which was designed for 3D printing and features an elevated architectural and energy-efficient design that highlights resiliency and sustainability.

Rocket Maker Firefly Aerospace Lands $75 Million in Funding and Becomes Austin’s Latest Unicorn

Tom Markusic, Founder of Firefly Aerospace, photo by Errich Petersen

Rocket maker Firefly Aerospace has landed $75 million in venture capital funding, giving it a $1 billion valuation, making it Austin’s latest Unicorn.

The company’s Series A funding round was led by DADA Holdings, with participation by Astera Institute, Canon Ball LLC, Reuben Brothers Limited, SMS Capital Investment LLC, Raven One Ventures, The XBTO Ventures, and other investors.

The round was oversubscribed, which led Firefly’s seed investor, Noosphere Ventures, to sell approximately $100 million of its holdings of Firefly equity to investors through secondary transactions, according to the company.

The funding comes as Firefly is set to launch its flagship Alpha small launch vehicle. The company plans to raise an additional $300 million later this year to fund its growth plans through 2025, according to a news release.

“It is gratifying to see such strong investor interest that far exceeded our near-term funding goal of $75 million,” Tom Markusic, Firefly’s CEO, said in a news release. “Firefly is excited to welcome our new partners, prior to our inaugural launch of Alpha. Post launch we will embark on a second larger round, that will enable Firefly to execute fully its business plan of new spacecraft and launch vehicle development. With our recent major contract wins and the arrival of new, strong financial partners, 2021 is proving to be a breakout year for Firefly.”

In addition to the funding, Firefly recently was awarded a $93.3 million NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract to deliver 10 science payloads to the surface of the Moon in 2023 using its Blue Ghost lunar lander.

Firefly is currently completing preparations for the inaugural launch of its Alpha launch vehicle from Vandenberg Space Force Base Space Launch Complex 2.

“Noosphere is proud to have supported the early development of Firefly Aerospace and the Alpha launch vehicle, “ Max Polyakov, founder of Noosphere Ventures, said in a news release. “As Firefly transitions into commercial service and embarks on additional ambitious programs such as lunar payload deliver, the time is right to expand the Firefly Investor base. We are delighted that Firefly has succeeded in attracting new investors that share Firefly’s long-term vision of “Making Space for Everyone.”

NASA’s Mission to Mars Goes Through Mississippi

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The historic B-1/B-2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

The historic B-1/B-2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

NASA doesn’t get to Mars without first testing its rocket engines in Mississippi.

About an hour bus ride from New Orleans, Stennis Space Center, near Bay St. Louis, is the nation’s largest rocket engine test facility comprising 13,800 acres with another 125,000 acres serving as a perimeter buffer zone. The government relocated 660 families to create the site back in the 1960s.

“Stennis has a rich history of testing, aside from the Apollo 8 rocket, every American built rocket or engine that has ever put humans into space has been tested here at Stennis Space Center,” said Richard Gilbrech, its director.

A giant hunk of metal and concrete almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty is getting a lot of attention at the site these days. The historic B-2 rocket engine test stand, built in 1966, has tested Saturn V and Space Shuttle main engines.

Now it’s being refurbished to play a huge role in NASA’s mission to deep space and eventually Mars.

The 264 foot tall stand will test NASA’s Space Launch System core stage by simultaneous firing four RS-25 engines, generating two million pounds of thrust. The test will last 550 seconds or just over nine minutes, the same time required for a regular launch, said Rick Rauch, manager of NASA’s B-2 Test Stand project. That testing is scheduled for 2016, he said.

The rocket testing has an Austin connection too. NASA is working with a team of industry and academic partners, including University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering assistant professor Charles E. Tinney, to learn about the performance of the RS-25 engines upon launch.

The Stennis rocket engine testing area is vast and desolate. A series of canals snake throughout the land linking all of the stands, which are connected with underground tunnels, to the Pearl River. And a lock and dam system allows the transport of large rocket stages on barges. The Pegasus barge, which once carried external tanks and other hardware for the space shuttle, will ferry the SLS core stage from the Michoud Assembly Center in New Orleans to Stennis for testing.

Rick Gilbrech, Stennis Space Center Director, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at Stennis, photo by Laura Lorek

Rick Gilbrech, Stennis Space Center Director, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at Stennis, photo by Laura Lorek

Last Friday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator and Gilbrech, held a press conference at Stennis for an update on the refurbishing of the B-2 test stand. That project is about 40 percent done, Gilbrech said.

In the last few years, NASA’s SLS and Orion spacecraft have made tremendous progress on NASA’s path to Mars, Lightfoot said.

“We’re going to go to Mars,” he said. “It won’t be next week. It won’t be next year. But we’re putting the capabilities in place to take folks to Mars and we’re pretty excited about it.”

“The overall goal for us is to get to a position where we are Mars ready, the other phrase I like to use is we’re earth independent,” Lightfoot said. “If you think about going to Mars, it’s a two to three year mission. The return time, because of the way orbital mechanics works, is months. We don’t get to come home in a day or two. We have to put all the technologies in place. We have to really understand our systems before we take off and go to Mars with humans. That’s our goal.”

The first stage is earth-reliant with a mission that lasts six to twelve months and returns to earth in hours. That’s the International Space Station missions. That has already been accomplished.

The B1/B2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

The B1/B2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

The ISS also lets NASA test technologies routinely, Lightfoot said. It gives NASA information on how humans will deal with microgravity. It has also allowed NASA to bring in commercial companies to provide services in the lower earth orbit area. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences provide cargo shuttle service now. And earlier this week, NASA awarded a $6.2 billion contract to Boeing and SpaceX to provide crew shuttle services.

“Jumping from earth reliant all the way to Mars ready is a pretty big step,” Lightfoot said.

So for NASA the next stage for human exploration is the proving ground. The missions can be one to twelve months and they can get back to earth in days, Lightfoot said.

“By the 2025 timeframe, we want to be actively in the proving ground, testing our technologies whether it’s going to the asteroid, whether it’s just proving out the technologies we need,” he said. “And, hopefully by the mid-2030s we’re Mars ready and we’re heading that way with humans.”

Editors note: I attended a #NASASocial at Stennis Space Center last Friday with a group of space enthusiasts and NASA staff. We traveled to Stennis after a tour of the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

NASA’s On Track to Build the Most Powerful Rocket Ever

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Inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, photo by Laura Lorek

Inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, photo by Laura Lorek

NEW ORLEANS – In a former sugar plantation on the eastern outskirts of New Orleans sits one of the city’s hidden gems.

NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility is known as the gateway to space.

Although most people know New Orleans for Mardi Gras, great Jazz music, art, Bourbon Street, gumbo, hurricanes, beignets and chicory coffee, it’s also a hub for rocket scientists. Yet tourists rarely get to see this site. Some of the best and brightest in the space program work at Michoud. But even some of the locals don’t realize the important role this place has played throughout the nation’s space history.

“Every rocket that has taken humans to space since the ‘60s has come through Michoud,” said Malcolm Wood, the facility’s deputy chief operating officer.

“During the Apollo program in the 1960s, Michoud built the first stages of the Saturn 1, 1B and Saturn V rockets,” according to NASA. Later, Michoud designed and built the 15-story tall external tanks for the space shuttles. One of the last tanks, a bright rust colored mammoth sits behind a building onsite, a monument to its past.

But Michoud is preparing for the future.

Major components of the Space Launch System (SLS) NASA’s most powerful rockets that will send astronauts into deep space and eventually Mars, are being built at Michoud, said Roy Malone Jr., director of the facility. Michoud is building the core propulsion stage for the SLS, and they are also building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, he said.

BxXc_fdCcAAQvCSThe 832-acre campus, which houses one of the nation’s largest manufacturing plants, is about 20 minutes from the French Quarter. The plant has more than 43 acres under one roof. It’s so vast that workers use bicycles to get around.

And it’s evolving, Malone said.

Michoud escaped major damage from Hurricane Katrina thanks to its employees working around the clock to pump water from the grounds, which like most of New Orleans sits below sea level.

At Michoud, Malone is like the mayor of a small city with 3,500 employees based at the facility, only 300 of them belong to NASA. The rest are contractors, employees of other federal agencies or private companies.

“We’re really changing the way we do business with a NASA facility,” he said.

NASA has nearly one million square feet for lease on the site. Its tenants include military contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but also Big Easy Studios, a film company. Big Easy has 250,000 square feet of studios and has filmed the sci-fi flick Ender’s Game, and Planet of the Apes and plans to film the upcoming Jurassic World here.

The site includes the Port of Michoud, which connects to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. NASA recently gave the U.S. Coast Guard half of the port. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture with more than 2,600 employees is one of the largest tenants on site.

Despite its transformation into a multi-purpose facility, Michoud still plays a major role in the space program. And all eyes last Friday were on the site for the dedication of a new facility.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, photo courtesy of NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, photo courtesy of NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana Senator David Vitter and Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo and other dignitaries gathered to cut the ribbon on the brand new Vertical Assembly Center, the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world.

“Right here we begin the next great march to the next great exploration to space,” Mayor Landrieu said. It’s a symbol and concrete example of New Orleans’ innovative future, he said.

“This is the beginning of the trip to Mars,” Bolden said. “This is not for any of us sitting here today. What we’re doing and what we’re about is for the young people of this nation. We are on our way to Mars and I really mean that. The state of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans along with neighboring states are key parts of building the core stage of the SLS.”

The Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud, photo courtesy of NASA

The Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud, photo courtesy of NASA

The Vertical Assembly Center is 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide and will be used to build the core stage of the SLS.

“The SLS Program continues to make significant progress,” said Todd May, the SLS program manager.

The NASA SLS rocket is expected to launch in 2018.

“At a fundamental level, space exploration, the mission of NASA, is about inspiration,” Congressman Palazzo said. “This inspiration fuels our desire to push the boundaries of the possible and reach beyond our own pale blue dot. The Space Launch System will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will carry humanity into the next phase of the exploration of our solar system.”

Inside the VAC, photo by Laura Lorek

Inside the VAC, photo by Laura Lorek

The SLS isn’t just drawings on a sketchpad, it’s real, Palazzo said.

“You can see the hardware being built and the components being assembled,” he said.

This is all progress on NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars, he said.

Editor’s Note: This is a field trip outside of the Silicon Hills. Occasionally I will visit another pocket of innovation that relates to all the work being done in Central Texas. I attended a NASA Social last Friday for the ribbon cutting on the Vehicle Assembly Center at the Michoud Assembly Facility. We also travelled to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. I will be writing another story from that trip.

At NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston for Expedition 37 Launch

Expedition 37 crew members lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in the Soyuz spacecraft on Wednesday.

Expedition 37 crew members lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in the Soyuz spacecraft on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of NASA.

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In July, I went to a NASA Social meetup at Johnson Space Center to learn about Astronaut fitness and wellness in space.

At that event, our group met the crew of Expedition 37, including Astronaut Mike Hopkins of NASA, a flight engineer, Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Soyuz Commander and Cosmonaut Sergey Ryanzanskiy, Flight Engineer with the Russian Federal Space Agency.

I grew up during the Cold War, in which we feared the Russians, so it’s nice to see the collaboration our space program has with Russia now. The Cosmonauts and Astronauts are not only crew members, but friends.

Astronaut Mike Hopkins of NASA, a flight engineer, Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Soyuz Commander and Cosmonaut Sergey Ryanzanskiy, Flight Engineer with the Russian Federal Space Agency. Photo courtesy of NASA

Astronaut Mike Hopkins of NASA, a flight engineer, Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Soyuz Commander and Cosmonaut Sergey Ryanzanskiy, Flight Engineer with the Russian Federal Space Agency. Photo courtesy of NASA

And on Wednesday at 3:58 p.m. Central Time, Hopkins, Kotov and Ryanzanskiy lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a five hour trek to the International Space Station.
I watched the launch from Mission Control Center at Houston’s NASA Johnson Space Center with my teenage son, Teddy. Astronaut Kevin Ford and others from NASA briefed us on Expedition 37 and the flight.

By the time we drove back from Houston from the event, the crew had almost made it to the space station. They docked at 9:45 p.m. Central Time, again without any problems. My son and I were able to watch it live from our computers on NASA Television.
Hopkins, Kotov and Ryanzanskiy will spend the next five and a half months on the International Space Station, which celebrates 15 years in space this November. The U.S. Mission Control Center for the International Space Station is at NASA Johnson Space Center.

Soyuz spacecraft about to dock with the International Space Station, photo courtesy of NASA

Soyuz spacecraft about to dock with the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The crew joined Expedition 37 crew members who have been aboard the space station since late May: Commander Fyodor Yurchikin of Rosmosmos and Flight Engineers Karen Nyberg of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency.
They will work on more than 1,600 experiments on the space station and they will add some new ones focused on human health and human physiology.

So even though NASA officially ended its 30-year space shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. still sends astronauts to space. NASA buys seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

And Johnson Space Center is still a hotbed for innovation in Texas and the United States.

Space Exploration, NASA Tweetups at SXSW Interactive

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, Sen. John Glenn, and NASA Glenn Research Center Director Ray Lugo, right, answer questions at a NASA Tweetup event celebrating John Glenn's legacy and 50 years of americans in orbit held at the Cleveland State University Wolstein Center on Friday, March 3, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA Tweetups have gained a cult-like following from space fans.
To qualify for one, you must follow @NASA on Twitter. The agency has more than 1.9 million followers. Once NASA announces a Tweetup, you fill out a simple online application which puts your name into a lottery with hundreds or thousands of other people.
Since the first NASA Tweetup in January of 2009, more than 2,000 people have participated in a NASA Tweetup, which provides a behind the scenes look at what goes on at a NASA facility.
I was lucky to win the NASA Tweetup lottery. I first applied to go to the Johnson Space Center in Houston Tweetup for the final space shuttle landing, but I was put on the wait list and I didn’t make it. When I heard that the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio planned to hold its first Tweetup to honor Astronaut and former Sen. John Glenn, I applied and I was selected as one of 75 Tweeters.
One of the best parts, NASA allowed us to bring guests. I took my 13-year-old son, Teddy.
Last Thursday, we flew to Cleveland, rented a car, got a hotel and the next morning we drove to the Glenn Research Center. (You pay for all of your own expenses including buying a box lunch.) Check in was between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. We made it with 10 minutes to spare. We boarded a bus and toured the center. We visited a zero gravity center and an exercise lab. We also went to a huge hanger and saw a variety of jets and demonstrations. Later, we travelled to the Great Lakes Science Center for lunch and to look at space exhibits. Then we attended a ceremony at Cleveland State University to honor former Sen. John Glenn, and the 50th anniversary of his orbit of the Earth in Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.
One of the best parts was our Q & A Tweetup with Sen. Glenn. My son asked him about space tourism, which he is in favor of but he thinks someone needs to create better propulsion systems and the flights are too expensive right now.
Astronauts Mike Forman, Mike Good, Gregory Johnson and retired Astronaut Steven Lindsey also met with us and discussed the importance of investing in math and science education for kids to remain competition. They also talked about NASA’s funding cuts and the need to develop commercial transportation to the International Space Shuttle.
The entire experience was fabulous and I highly recommend attending a NASA Tweetup if you’re able to snag a ticket.
But when I got back to Texas I couldn’t help but want more. That’s when I learned about all the space-focused panels at South by Southwest this weekend and early next week.
Also, NASA has more than 100 Twitter accounts that allow you to follow astronauts, NASA facilities, administrators, researchers, staff and more. And NASA should have its own channel on cable television with all of its videos, pictures and stories that it publishes daily.
To find out more about NASA’s social media efforts or about commercial efforts at space travel by Austin’s own Richard Garriott, you might want to attend one of the following SXSW panels.

Richard Garriott’s Continuing Space Mission. Garriott debuted his documentary film “Man on a Mission” last year at the SXSW film festival. This year, he will talk about how the commercial space industry is changing the future. Garriott’s the first second-generation astronaut to fly in space. He travelled to the International Space Station in 2008. His talk is Saturday, March 10 from 12:30PM – 1:30PM at the Hilton Austin Downtown in Salon H.

NASA’s Mission Possible: Tweeting thru Space puts the spotlight on NASA’s social media outreach efforts. The panel features Erik Sowa, NASA Tweetup attendee and director of engineering at ExactTarget’s Social Media Lab, and Stephanie Schierholz, NASA’s former head of social media. The discussion takes place on Sunday, March 11 from 5:00PM – 6:00PM at the Omni Downtown Capital Ballroom.

How to Win Friends and Influence Space Exploration Sunday, March 11
12:30PM – 1:30PM at the Omni Downtown in the Capital Ballroom. “Not unlike a zombie horde ready to devour red tape and uninspired project managers, this enthusiastic movement sees brains as valuable assets to take over the world. Learn why these people got so passionately involved in space, how they became good friends over the Internet, and what they’ve created to make measurable change toward a more awesome tomorrow. While established membership organizations struggle to survive, these Internet-enabled groups are flourishing with new members from far outside traditional demographic lines that are creating large-scale activities. If you don’t already know a space tweep, learn why you will.”

SpacePoints: Space Outreach at Ludicrous Speed – Monday, March 12 at the Hilton from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in Room 616AB “When NASA’s budget was drastically cut and the commercial aerospace industry found itself in charge of getting man into space, a group of “space geeks” consisting of web developers, aerospace scientists and engineers, and people who have a dream of living in space started meeting up and designed the rules, developed the application, and are sharing Space Points. They are increasing awareness publicly about space policy, increasing funding to aerospace-related research (commercial and government), and having fun playing to win!”

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