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Houston OTC chairman sees an increasing effect of digital tech ahead of the 50th anniversary

Wafik Beydoun has served on the board of OTC for almost a decade. Courtesy of Beydoun

Wafik Beydoun has been on the board of the Houston Offshore Technology Conference — and has served as chairman for the past two years. As he prepares to pass the baton after this year's event, he's reflected on how much the conference has changed — namely due to new innovation and technologies.

"The rising tide of the digital revolution is lifting us all — not only OTC or the industry — and it's lifting us at an exponential rate," Beydoun tells InnovationMap. "Digital is moving now exponentially, whether we want it to or not, we're benefitting from it."

OTC takes place at NRG Park from May 6 to 9. Beydoun shares his observations and advice on how innovation and startups have effected change at the 50-year-old conference.

InnovationMap: What's going to differentiate this year's conference from previous years?

Wafik Beydoun: This year is very special because we are celebrating the 50th birthday of OTC. The first event was held in May of 1969. Last year it was the 50th event, so these two years are very unique. Last year, we had an opening ceremony, and we will have that again this year — that's different from OTCs in the past.

The most important change you'll see is the amount of papers on offshore renewables — it's something the board wanted to test and show that the industry is being more aware in this area. What I mean when I say offshore renewables is mostly offshore wind, but there's also energy from waves and gas hydrates — another form of gas trapped under ice in the subsea. These are things we have had in the past few years, but this year we have 14 sessions on marine renewables.

IM: What sort of new technologies (machine learning, IOT, AI, etc.) are you excited about seeing grow its presence at OTC?

WB: The way the technologies are impacting is it can go from drilling to monitoring remotely. More and more platforms in difficult conditions are reducing the number of people involved. There are already talks about unmanned platforms offshore. On safety in general, digital and AI immersion are able to help train people faster and without injuring themselves.

IM: How have startups been represented at the conference?

WB: We recognize that startups are adding a lot of oxygen into OTC. We need that for different reasons. For one, they bring in innovation in energy. Also with this kind of digital area, we have a lot of startups coming from Silicon Valley that want to innovate in the energy domain, and OTC can be that space where we can invite them to help us in our challenges.

IM: How has innovation and technology affected the conference specifically over the years?

WB: The conference is the place where you have all the specialists come and talk about their projects — it attracts all those who have an exciting story to tell, and it could be in innovation. And they bring their tool or technology into the exhibition. In 1969 at OTC, you could see the suit we'd put humans in to go under water. Now, you can see the robots that explore the seafloor.

IM: How has innovation and technology affected the conference specifically over the years?

WB: Register for the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. You have the opportunity to invest or meet face-to-face these 50 startups on the rise. The second thing you should attend is the Spotlight on the New Technology Award. Based on these technologies, you can have a feel of what's the leading edge of technology for the industry as presented by exhibitors. If an entrepreneur wants to see what's new and bringing money, attending this will show him or her what companies want that new technology.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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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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