out of this world

Bill Nye shares the future of space exploration at Houston's annual SpaceCom

In his SpaceCom 2019 keynote address, Bill Nye shares the breakthrough technology he's been able to develop at The Planetary Society. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

According to Bill Nye, known to most as "The Science Guy" but who now leads the largest non-government space exploration nonprofit, humanity has always asked two questions: How did we get here and are we alone.

"If you want to answer those two questions, you've got to explore space," Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, says in his keynote address at Houston's annual SpaceCom.

The conference, which took over downtown Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center for November 20 and 21, welcomed a record number of attendees from all over the world. Throughout the two days, 2,500 space fans, experts, and professionals from around the world engaged with panels and programming as well as the exhibit hall full of dozens of space companies.

In his keynote address, Nye walked through the history of solar space studies and breakthroughs, from Johannes Kepler's 17th century observation of the sun's solar force on comets to Carl Sagan's work to develop a completely solar powered spacecraft. Sagan, who was a mentor to Nye, passed away in 1996 and didn't get to see his dream become reality.

Nye, however, has accomplished Sagan's goals, and the technology he and The Planetary Society has developed is low cost and completely citizen funded, representing a huge step toward democratizing space.

"We built two spacecrafts for $7 million," Nye says of LightSail 1 and 2.

The first iteration didn't last long, but LightSail 2 equipped with CubeSats — small but mighty satellites — became the first controlled solar sail spacecraft completely propelled by the sun. Solar sails use radiation pressure from the sun as an energy source reacting with extremely thin reflective material that makes up the sail.

The device, which is still in space, represents a lot of potential for long-term space missions since no fuel is needed. While there have been light sails launched in the past, LightSail 2 was the first iteration to be able to be steered from earth in a timely manner. (The device can be turned in a matter of minutes.)

"With this technology, we can democratize space," Nye tells the crowd, sharing that just a few hours before, Time magazine named the technology as the most innovative invention in aerospace.

Nye says that while the work he is doing at The Planetary Society came about as a group of engineers trying to solve a specific problem, the results they have found and the feedback they received represent the world's interest in continuing space exploration in a cost-effective and feasible way.

"Space brings people together," Nye says.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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