Big winners

Houston companies take home big prizes from a Texas A&M startup competition

Spark Biomedical took home first place at the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. Courtesy of Texas A&M

Earlier this month, 16 startups competed in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition for more than $350,000 in cash and in-kind services — the largest pool of prizes in the contest's history.

Houston had a huge presence at TNVC this year. Several Houston startups competed in the technology- and science-focused pitch competition, and the top three prizes were claimed by Houstonians. Of the 13 health and life science companies that were named semifinalists, seven were related to the TMC Innovation Institute.

Here are the Houston companies that walked away from the TNVC with cash and/or prizes.

Spark Biomedical

Friendswood-based medical device company Spark Biomedical took home the top prize at TNVC, which came with a $50,000 check. Spark's technology uses a noninvasive neurostimulation treatment for opioid addiction recovery.

"I'm very humbled and grateful," says Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark, in a release. "This award means a lot because Texas A&M is my alma mater. Being back here is fantastic, and this win is a testament to the work we're doing and our dedication to making a difference with this product."

Spark also was recognized with the Southwest Pediatric Device Prize and the Aggie Angel Network Investment Prize. Recently, Spark announced a partnership with another Houston startup, Galen Data.

SurfEllent

Photo via surfellent.com

Coming in at No. 2 overall and receiving a $35,000 prize was Houston-based advanced coating company, SurfEllent. The company, which is based out of the University of Houston's Technology Park, has designed an anti-icing technology that can be used in any type of situation from de-icing cars to aeronautical applications.

SurfEllent was also recently recognized as one of the top three innovators at NASA's 2017 iTech forum, out of 130 entries across the US.

The company also walked away with the TEEX Product Development Center Prize.

Intelligent Implants

Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Intelligent Implants called Houston home during the 2018 TMCx medical device cohort and still has a presence in town. The company, which created a, implantable wireless device that stimulates bone growth using electrical stimulation, claimed third prize and $25,000.

Last fall, following its success at TMCx, Intelligent Implants was named the "Most Promising Life Science Company" at the 2018 Texas Life Science Forum hosted by the Rice Alliance and BioHouston.

VenoStent

Photo via venostent.com

Another 2018 TMCx medical device cohort member competed at the TNVC and left with fresh funds. VenoStent took fifth place and a $10,000 prize. VenoStent has a device that allows a successful stent implementation on the first try, called the SelfWrap. The device is made from a shape-memory polymer that uses body heat to mold the stent into the vein-artery junction.

VenoStent, which has its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, also won the Ramey & Schwaller IP Legal Services Prize.

PolyVascular

Courtesy of TMC Innovation

Houston-based PolyVascular walked away a big winner of multiple prizes. The company, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, creates polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease.

PolyVascular won the TNVC pitch competition, which came with a $5,000 prize. The startup also walked away with the Biotex Investment Prize, the Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and the GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Ictero Medical

Ictero Medical, which operates out of JLABs at TMC, took home several prizes, including the Thomas | Horstemeyer IP Legal Services Prize, the TMC Accelerator Admission Prize, and the Engineering Vice Chancellor Innovation Prize — a new award that came with a $15,000 prize.

Ictero created the CholeSafe System — a minimally invasive device that treats gallstone disease patients in a procedure with "only minimal local anesthesia to defunctionalize the gallbladder without having to remove it," according to the website.

Sun Co. Tracking

Sun Co. Tracking was the other of the two startups to receive the new Engineering Vice Chancellor's Innovation Prize and its own $15,000 prize. The Houston-based company is developing shape memory alloy actuators for solar panels.

"This unique prize is intended to help the awardees access the world-class engineering capabilities at Texas A&M to obtain technical assistance toward solving their most challenging technical problems in product design, manufacturing or testing," says Dr. Balakrishna Haridas, TEES director for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, in a release.

"These collaborations between the prize winners and Texas A&M Engineering will generate technical data to support on Small Business Innovation Research/grant proposal funding or private capital investments to the company."

GaitIQ

Photo via LinkedIn

GaitIQ is based in San Antonio, but is automatically accepted into TMCx's tenth cohort if they'd like, since the company won the TMC Investment Prize. The company, which created a primary care app that uses artificial intelligence and cloud-based technology, also won sixth place overall and $5,000.

GaitIQ also won the Ark Pharmacies, Inc. Regional Prize, the Hollinden Marketing and Strategists Services Prize, and the Schwegman Lundberg and Woessner IP Legal Services Prize.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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