Cha-ching

MassChallenge Texas wraps up inaugural Houston cohort with top 3 startups and a surprise investment

MassChallenge Texas named its top three startups of its inaugural Houston cohort and the Houston Angel Network made an unexpected investment. Courtesy of MassChallenge Texas

A new-to-Houston global accelerator program just concluded its inaugural cohort, naming three top startups and providing a platform for an unexpected prize — an investment.

MassChallenge Texas didn't originally intend to have monetary prizes for this first program, however, thanks to Houston Angel Network, one lucky startup is walking away from the program $40,000 richer.

HAN, one of Houston's oldest and most active group of angel investors, saw pitch decks from most of the companies in the cohort and then invited seven companies to pitch: Ask DOSS, Celise, DoBrain, NeuroRescue, Noleus Technologies, Sensytec, and Swoovy.

At the September 5 startup showcase event, HAN named Houston-based Sensytec as the winner of the $40,000 investment prize.

The night's other big winners were MassChallenge's top three startups, program: NeuroRescue, Noleus Technologies, and Sensytec, which were selected from the top six startups that were announced a couple weeks in advance.

HAN engaged with the MassChallenge group in a few ways — like mentorship or presenting — but managing director Stephanie Campbell says she knew she wanted to discuss investment opportunities from the very beginning.

"I just think it's really important that when a new group like MassChallenge or any other accelerator come into town that we find ways to fold them into our community and help them be successful," she tells InnovationMap.

All of this year's cohort will receive 18 months of free coworking space — six months at MassChallenge, six months at The Cannon, and six months at Station Houston — and the top three startups will receive automatic entry into another MassChallenge cohort. Because no one won a cash prize from MassChallenge directly, all of the startups are eligible to reapply for another program.

"We wanted to make sure that the companies that went through the shortened version of the program this year have the ability to apply next year to any other program," MassChallenge Texas' Houston managing director, Jon Nordby, says.

Next time around, MassChallenge Texas will likely have a longer program with money on the table. That money would be provided by the organization's corporate partners. The city of Houston has put forth $2.5 million to be dealt out over five years, and Houston-based Reliant Energy has become a central partner to MassChallenge.

"We believe in supporting organizations that are pushing the boundaries and really making an impact in the community as well as the economy and the industry," says Elizabeth Killinger, president at NRG Retail and Reliant.

Killinger says next year she expects Reliant to be just as if not more involved with the process. Campbell too says HAN is interested in continuing its work with MassChallenge, and even sees it setting an example for other angel investors to get involved too.

"We're just planting the seed for the next cohort," Campbell says.

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A Rice University scientist will be working on the team for NASA's latest Mars rover. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."

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