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Houston coding class grows tenfold in 2 years to meet the job market needs

Houston's job market has seen a growing demand for coders, as companies seek to bring coding in house. DigitalCrafts is stepping in to provide an educated workforce. Courtesy of DigitalCrafts

When DigitalCrafts hosted its first coding boot camp in Houston, it opened with eight people. Two years later, the organization's next class will graduate 125 people as coders, ready to take on the challenges of the Bayou City's 21st century work environment.

"We work with local companies as part of our advising board," says Jason Ephraim, the Houston campus director. "And our students go to work for those companies when they complete our program. That kind of localization helps us understand what the Houston ecosystem needs in terms of workforce skills, and allows us to adapt our curriculum to meet their needs, which helps us ensure our graduates get placed."

DigitalCrafts began in Atlanta, co-founded by Max McChesney and Jake Hadden. The Houston outpost is only the second expansion for the company, a move Ephraim says is a deliberate; DigitalCrafts looks to make small, impactful changes as a company, better ensuring it meets the needs of both its students and the workforce they'll enter.

The company offers a project-based curriculum, where outside companies come into the classroom and describe the challenges they're facing. Students are then offered the opportunity to work in teams on digital solutions, providing an experiential learning environment that mirrors what they might find in their careers.

"In Atlanta, we work with companies like the Home Depot and Chick-Fil-A, but here in Houston, where energy is still dominant, we have companies come in and explain the tools they need to maximize their business," Ephraim says. "That means students are working on actual projects with an end result for a business, and it gives them exposure to area businesses."

That combination of providing a deep dive into coding and partnering with Houston companies helps DigitalCrafts graduates get an edge on the competition. The program itself is super hands on, and most of the students who come into it have taken at least one computer programming course, most likely Python or JavaScript, whether in the course of their college education or via a MOOC (massive open online course).

"For most of our students, that exposure wasn't enough and they want a deeper dive," says Ephraim.

DigitalCrafts offers both full- and part-time class options. The full-time program is 16 weeks and fully immersive. Students take courses every day, building on skills and training as full-stack developers. The part-time sessions unfold across 26 weeks, and students learn front- and back-end web development.

"Our goal has always been to help our students be ready for careers in all aspects of software and web development," says Ephraim. "The average student is 30, and looking to either make a career change to coding and development, or wants to enhance what he or she has already learned."

The vetting process for students is exacting, explains Ephraim. Each applicant is evaluated based not only on what he or she knows and is looking to learn, but also in terms of what his or her individual career goals are. DigitalCrafts looks to ensure that its programs will meet the needs of its students.

Ephraim says that given Houston's current job landscape, the need for coders is strong — and growing.

"Over the last two years, we're seeing companies who used to outsource this kind of development bringing it back in-house," he says. "That's created a really high demand for people who understand coding and programming and know how to solve problems. And it's not just happening at energy companies. It's happening in finance, in health care."

In short, the industries that play a huge role in keeping the Houston economy ticking.

In addition to offering its in-depth boot camps, DigitalCrafts also contracts with companies to train employees. The company will either offer basic classes or work with an organization to custom-create a curriculum based on individual needs. Ephraim says that his organization has had success in the Bayou City because it's made it a point to understand the local landscape, as well as look at the larger picture of what digital careers here look like.

"Houston isn't like Austin, where you have that almost stereotypical idea of people walking around with their laptops and working in coffee shops," Ephraim says. "The digital landscape here is different, and there are jobs here for those who know how to fill this need. Companies here want to hire Houstonians. We're here to help make sure they can."

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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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