leading innovation

Houston Innovation Awards names longtime Rice leader as 2023 Trailblazer

Brad Burke has been named the 2023 Trailblazer Award recipient. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

In less than a month, all of Houston's innovation community's movers and shakers will gather to celebrate the Houston Innovation Awards, and the night's first honoree has officially been named.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, was selected to receive the 2023 Trailblazer Award. The award was established to recognize an individual who has already left a profound impact on Houston's business and innovation ecosystem and is dedicated to continuing to support Houston and its entrepreneurs.

The award, which is selected from a group of internal and external nominations, was decided by a vote of the 2023 awards judges, who represent Houston's business, investment, and entrepreneurial community across industries. Last year, Blair Garrou, managing director and founder of Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, accepted the award, and the inaugural recipient in 2021 was Barbara Burger, former president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

Founded in 2000, the Rice Alliance has been led by Burke since its early days, and its impact had far exceeded the Rice University campus. The organization's cornerstone event, the Rice Business Plan Competition, attracts hundreds of student entrepreneurs, venture investors, and more to Houston every spring.

In a Q&A with InnovationMap, Burke discusses his passion for Houston and the impact he and the Rice Alliance have made on the city.

InnovationMap: ​From the Rice Business Plan Competition to the many venture days and other programing, how would you describe the Rice Alliance's impact — under your leadership for the past more than 20 years — on the Houston innovation ecosystem?

Brad Burke: From the earliest days of the Rice Alliance in 2000, our goal has been to create a community to support the launch of tech startups in Houston and bring together the resources to enable them to be successful, whether they need entrepreneurship education, mentoring, funding, legal support, opportunities for pilots, or connections. It’s been really important for us to bridge a connection between Rice University and the Houston ecosystem—so we’ve been intentional about driving our impact outside of the hedges and I always envision Rice to be a hub for entrepreneurial ecosystem and a pillar in the Houston community.

Through the Rice Business Plan Competition, our venture forums, accelerators, educational workshops, and other programs, we have coalesced hundreds, if not thousands, of investors, mentors, corporates, service providers, who collaborate with a shared goal of making Houston a leading region for entrepreneurship. The RBPC alone now has more than 350 investors and other judges and has resulted in the formation of several new investment groups including, Goose Capital, Owl Investment Group, and nCourage Entrepreneurs. We’ve also aimed to shine a light on Houston outside of the city. That’s why we’ve built global programs to bring entrepreneurs and investors here to see just how great we all know the Houston community to be. The growth of RBPC into the “world’s largest and richest student startup competition” is not just a result of the Rice Alliance, but it’s really a result of the Houston community members who have been dedicated with us for so long. We hope this is a point of pride and feels like a win for everyone in Houston, not just the Rice Alliance.

Based on our research we know that more than 3,165 startups have participated in our programs and raised more than $23 billion in funding.

IM: Rice University is an integral part of the Houston business and innovation community. Why are you and other university leaders committed to supporting entrepreneurship in Houston on and off the Rice campus?

BB: When you look across the country, in every leading region of entrepreneurship and venture capital, strong research universities played a major role as a catalyst for driving success, such as Stanford and Berkeley in Silicon Valley and MIT and Harvard in Boston. For Houston to succeed, it is important to Rice to play a similar leadership role. A key part of our mission is to help commercialize technologies developed by the incredibly talented faculty at Rice as well as other institutions in the region. But it is also to help entrepreneurs who may have no affiliation with Rice, as well as bring some of the most promising startups from other regions to Houston to meet with local investors and to encourage them to build their companies here. At the same time, we bring hundreds of investors to Houston each year from other parts of the U.S. and organize hundreds of one-on-one meetings with regional startups. By fostering and building the entrepreneurial ecosystem, we foster economic development and job creation in Houston, and can help ensure Houston remains the energy capital of the world and a global leader in healthcare and life sciences, building on the work of the Texas Medical Center.

IM: Looking back on your career so far, as well as to the future, what do you hope your legacy is?

Our philosophy has been to be supportive of and collaborative with every organization in Houston. We all share a common goal to make Houston a leading entrepreneurship region. In order to achieve this goal, it takes a collaborative effort. We have strived to serve as a role model in Houston to achieve this success. In everything we’ve built over the past 22 years at Rice Alliance, we’ve prioritized building relationships and collaborations, bringing people in, so that it’s not just the Rice Alliance’s success but Houston’s success and that when I think about legacy, that mindset and that approach is part of that.

As I look back, it feels like the trajectory of Houston’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has reached an inflection point over the past several years. As I meet with leaders from around the country, they are all familiar with the success of the Rice Business Plan Competition, and increasingly view Houston as a major player in energy innovation and the energy transition. I would hope that the Rice Alliance is viewed as one of the organizations that contributed substantially to this success and has played a key role as a catalyst in the ecosystem. I hope that the success of the Rice Alliance has spurred additional support for the ecosystem, such as Rice’s investment in the Ion and the Ion Innovation District.

But I hope the legacy will extend beyond Houston, as we were a co-founder of the Texas University Network for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (TUNIE), along with UT Dallas, in order to help every university in the state of Texas enhance its entrepreneurship program. And we are the headquarters for Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers (GCEC) which brings together over 300 universities each year to network and share best practices. Both organizations reflect positively on Rice and the Houston ecosystem.

Most of all, I recognize that whatever we have accomplished has been due to the amazing team members that comprise the Rice Alliance. It is without a doubt the best group of people I have ever worked with in my career.

I’m proud of the relationships and collaborations we have formed at all levels: within our Rice Alliance team, with the RBPC and many judges and the formation of new investor groups, the formation of TUNIE and relationships with universities within Texas, and leadership of the GCEC, a collaboration of other universities across the U.S. and the world.


Join InnovationMap and Houston Exponential in celebrating Brad Burke and the other honorees — who will be announced next week — at the November 8 event.

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