running game

Houston entrepreneur levels the playing field for female runners with new activewear line

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

It was race day for avid marathon runner, Debbie Mercer. She and her race pack got up early on a brisk winter's day in Chicago, Illinois, piling on warm layers over their compression tights, to run the Chicago Marathon.

Miles into the race, Mercer and her friends made a pit stop at the portable bathrooms. The female runners stood in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

"I remember thinking 'I wish there was some way that we could do that too,'" Mercer recalls.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says.

From full-length pants and tights, to 3-inch compression or loose shorts, Zip Hers has established an array of products suitable active women. However, it was a long and winding road to producing such innovative, high-quality products that could be competitive in such a vast industry of activewear, according to Mercer.

Zip Hers in the making

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Mercer kicked off prototype production in 2016. She jumped around to various designers and manufacturers, turning away samples that didn't quite fit her vision for the product. Part of the challenge, Mercer describes, was finding a manufacturer who could manipulate stretch and non-stretch fabric in high-quality ways. Maintaining maximum comfort and a sleek design were challenges when the new variable of a zipper was thrown into the mix.

"It took us a while to get the zipper design perfect so that it would fit well and have a design that was comfortable," Mercer says. "We had to find the right manufacturer to find the skill to make these. We found one in Dallas and one in Houston."

Through trial and error, the Zip Hers design team produced a smooth design that coexists seamlessly with the delicate areas that sit around the zipper. They created a custom-made zipper pull, an invisible, thin disk embossed with the Zip Hers logo.

"Women can easily grab it when they're squatting, and don't have to struggle to find it… you can't even tell that a zipper is there. It's very sleek," Mercer says. "They're all handmade. We have to have special fabric for the panels and…have to have special machines to get the seams just right."

By September 2019, the Zip Hers prototype was finalized and officially launched via the company's online retail site.

Game changers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Zip Hers products, the first of their kind, are sure to change the game for female marathon runners, hikers and any other outdoor activity fanatics, Mercer says. With so many athletic brands available on the internet, Mercer hopes that Zip Hers' innovative approach to active wear, and the unique opportunity they offer to women, will help set the brand apart.

"We really don't see any other products out there like ours…As far as apparel goes, we're the only one," Mercer says.

Since launching last year, Zip Hers has watched their clientele expand with predominantly long distance runners and adventure goers. With the 'athleisure' trend on the rise, they're also seeing more women buying leisurewear for yoga classes, or indoor casual use. Mercer says that she hopes Zip Hers will continue to expand to reach female fishers, hunters, climbers, and even first responders, so that women never have to take off their duty belts.

From various race-day experiences of waiting in long bathroom lines as precious time ticks by, to when nature calls during outdoor activities involving co-ed company, Mercer confronted women's realities by proposing an empowering solution for women.

"Ultimately, it gives women a choice. What's more empowering for women than the power to choose what's best for them?" Mercer says.

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Building Houston

 
 

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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