show me the money

Houston student startup competition doles out record-breaking more than $3M in prizes

Seventeen of the RBPC student teams walked away with investment prizes this year. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over the weekend, Houston hosted what is known as the world’s largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competition, and a Texas team took the overall win and over $3 million in investment prizes were given out at the annual banquet.

The 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition was held May 11-13 and included mentoring, pitching, and networking for the 42 student teams with over 350 judges before culminating in over 80 prizes being announced. The $3.4 million in investment and in-kind prizes marks the largest yet for the 23-year-old competition.

"Judges told us that the quality of the startups at this year’s competition was the best ever,” says Catherine Santamaria, director of the RBPC, in the news release. “One judge went so far as to say that every startup this year was worthy of investment.”

Over 450 startups applied to the competition, and the 42 startups selected hailed from 35 universities from five countries. There were five categories: energy, clean tech and sustainability; life sciences and health care solutions; consumer products and services; hard tech; and digital enterprise. Based on the judges scores, seven startups reached the finals, and this year, three Texas teams made the finals, with two being from Rice University.

All 42 companies were eligible for investment or in-kind prizes, and, even though $1.75 million in prizes was expected to be awarded, some of this year's investors doubled — or even tripled — down on investment awards. While the finalists walked away with various in-kind prizes too, here's a round up of the investment prizes each startup won at the awards.

Zaymo, Brigham Young University — $885,000

Zaymo, a tool for e-commerce brands that embeds the shopping experience within customers’ email, won the most amount of money at the awards ceremony. The company won third place and a $50,000 Investment Prize sponsored by David Anderson, Jon Finger, Anderson Family Fund, Finger Interests, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce. Zaymo also won the following awards:

  • $200,000 OWL Investment Prize
  • $100,000 Houston Angel Network Investment Prize
  • $500,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prize
  • $15,000 Eagle Investors Prize
  • $20,000 Novak Druce Carroll Investment Prize

Boston Quantum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology — $455,000

Boston Quantum, which is using enterprise quantum computing software to disrupt the financial industry, won the second-most amount of investment prizes and sixth place in the competition.

  • $5,000 Chevron Technology Ventures Sixth-Place Cash Prize
  • $300,000 OWL Investment Prize
  • $125,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prize
  • $25,000 Urban Capital Network Diversity Investment Prize in partnership with South Loop Ventures

FluxWorks, Texas A&M University — $350,000

Based on the judges scores, the big winner was FluxWorks, a Texas company that's technology includes magnetic gears that are four times quieter than standard with 99 percent efficiency and can offer unprecedented reliability from outer space to under the sea and even inside the human body. The company won the $350,000 GOOSE Capital Investment Grand Prize.

Skali, Northwestern University — $300,000

Skali, which didn't make it into the prestigious finalist positions, still walked away with $300,000 courtesy of the Softeq Venture Fund Prize. Skali's technology aims to better equip flights with medical emergency assistance.

TierraClimate, Rice University — $280,000

TierraClimate, a marketplace for selling verified carbon offsets to corporate buyers, won fourth place and the Norton Rose Fulbright $5,000 Prize. The company also won a $200,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prize and the $75,000 OWL Investment Prize.

AirSeal, Washington University in St. Louis — $250,000

Another non-finalist that still scored big was AirSeal, a company that's created a simple blood test for cardiovascular diagnostics. The startup secured the $250,000 TMC Innovation Healthcare Investment Prize.

Sygne Solutions, Rice University — $200,000

Sygne Solutions, a startup on a mission of eliminating a group of chemicals known as PFAS in water through its patent-pending technology, won second place and the $100,000 Investment Prize, sponsored by David Anderson, Jon Finger, Anderson Family Fund, Finger Interests, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce. The company also received the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Investment Prize.

BlueVerse, Texas Tech University — $145,000

BlueVerse, a startup with tech to merge social media with reviews and rewards for small businesses, didn't make the finals but walked away with on of the $125,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prizes and the $20,000 Novak Druce Carroll Investment Prize.

Atma Leather, Yale University —$130,000

Atma Leather, a material innovation company that's created plant-based leather from banana stems and other crop waste, came in fifth place and secured the $5,000 EY Fifth-Place Cash Prize. The startup also won:

  • $75,000 OWL Investment Prizes
  • $50,000 nCourage Investment Group’s Courageous Women Entrepreneurs Investment Prize

MyLÚA Health, Cornell University — $30,000

MyLÚA Health's AI technology supports the maternal health industry. The company won the $30,000 Pearland Economic Development Corporation Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize.

Active Surfaces, Massachusetts Institute of Technology — $25,000

With its flexible and lightweight solar panel technology, Active Surfaces scored the $25,000 New Climate Ventures Sustainability Investment Prize.

Integrated Molecular Innovations, Michigan Technological University — $25,000

Integrated Molecular Innovations, which created a wearable device that can monitor hormone levels, won the $25,000 Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium Prize.

MiraHeart, Johns Hopkins University — $25,000

MiraHeart, which created a non-invasive way of monitoring child heart conditions, also won the $25,000 Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium Prize.

Biome Future, University of Florida — $20,000

Biome Future, which creates ocean-safe chemicals via microbes in corals, won one of the $20,000 Novak Druce Carroll Investment Prizes.

Citrimer, University of Michigan — $10,000

A sustainable materials company, Citrimer won the $10,000 NABACO RBPC Alumni Network Prize.

Thryft Ship, University of Georgia — $10,000

Thryft Ship, which streamlines the shipping process for social media sellers, won a $10,000 nCourage Investment Group’s Courageous Women Entrepreneurs Investment Prize.

Pathways, Harvard University  — $5,000

Pathways, which is developing a full-stack sustainability platform for the construction industry, won $5,000 Shell Ventures Seventh-Place Cash Prize.

In addition to these investment prizes, the startups have the chance to score in-kind prizes. This year, that included:

  • $6,667 Baker Botts Legal Services In-Kind Prize to FluxWorks, Texas A&M University
  • $6,667 Baker Botts Legal Services In-Kind Prize to Sygne Solutions, Rice University
  • $6,667 Baker Botts Legal Services In-Kind PrizeFluxWorks to Zaymo, Brigham Young University
  • $10,000 New York Technology Capital CFO Consulting In-Kind to FluxWorks, Texas A&M University
  • EFN Mentoring Services to all startup competitors
  • Amazon Web Services to all startup competitors
  • Stage 2 Competition Entry to Sygne Solutions, Rice University
All 42 of the RBPC companies wins at least $950. In each of the three semi-final rounds, third place wins $2,000, fourth place wins $1,750, and fifth place wins $1,500. The wild card round, which acts as a second-chance competition for the companies that didn't originally make it to the finals, advances the wild card winner into the finals and also awards second place $1,000, third place $975, fourth place $950, and fifth place $950.

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By harnessing the power of AI, Sibme will boost the effectiveness of instructional coaching and save teachers’ time as they receive data and feedback in real time on how they conduct their classroom lessons. Photo via Getty Images

Not many adages stand the test of time quite like this one: to be the best, learn from the best.

Sage advice, which is why Houston-based Sibme, the learning engagement platform designed by teachers, is introducing an all-new artificial intelligence tool to transform professional learning for teachers.

By harnessing the power of AI, Sibme will boost the effectiveness of instructional coaching and save teachers’ time as they receive data and feedback in real time on how they conduct their classroom lessons. This is accomplished by providing teachers with more opportunities for meaningful, in-depth conversations with their instructional coaches through automatically generated quantitative data on video and audio recordings of teachers’ classroom instruction.

“When David Wakefield founded the company in 2013, it was primarily based on something that was pretty difficult to do at the time, which was just being able to record and upload video in classrooms,” COO TJ Hoffman tells InnovationMap. “Sibme was the first mobile-first technology that made it possible to upload a video longer than an hour into the cloud. And that was sort of our original approach in the classrooms.

Wakefield and Hoffman were former teachers, with former working in Houston ISD, and the latter in Pasadena ISD.

"We recognized that a lot of the ways in which teachers are trained in traditional workshops, or trainings like modules online and stuff like that, weren't in any way improving our ability to do our jobs as teachers," Hoffman says. “And the thing that really did make it easy for us to grow as teachers was watching other teachers teach and being able to ask them questions and that sort of stuff.

"It's hard to do in schools because teachers are in classrooms with kids all day long," Hoffman continues. "There's no time for them to leave and go watch someone else do their job. So that idea of recording a video and annotating it with comments and asking feedback three minutes in, like ‘Hey, why did you ask that question of that student that way?’ That was something that we originally did, and that's been the primary driver of our growth over the last ten years.”

Efficient education for the educators

With the tagline, “making every moment a teachable moment,” Sibme has broken through as the go-to learning engagement platform for professional development, replete with coaching, cohort-based professional learning communities and peer-to-peer collaboration.

“The thing that we've recognized and have worked on for the last couple of years is, if I record and upload a 45-minute lesson and share it with the teacher next door or the principal at the school or somebody else, they've got to watch it for 45 minutes and that's time-consuming as well,” says Hoffman. “Our newest iteration, our AI tools, make it easier to identify key moments in a video that are related to things that a teacher can do better to reach kids more equitably and more effectively so that they're learning better.”

Not surprisingly, the creators of Sibme are excited about the AI component, which is able to watch the videos, transcribe them and identify key moments where the teacher asks important questions in those videos.

“Now with the AI tool, I can go straight to those moments and see which kids I have called on, what kinds of questions I have asked them, who responded and who hasn't, so it helps teachers develop better strategies for reaching kids.”

Practice makes progress, according to the Sibme platform, which embeds training and collaboration in every workday, engaging employees while building a stronger community of learners.

“Sibme builds off the same principle of athletes,” adds Wakefield. “I can watch a million Astros games, but I'm not going to be a better baseball player until I pick up a bat or pick up a glove and actually start playing and then get coaching on it, right? It's the same principle for training teachers. Teaching is a complex activity. I can't just show you how to teach or tell you how to teach and then you can do it.

“You've got to get up and teach, and then you've got to get really concrete feedback the same way that a great coach provides concrete feedback to a player. Hold the bat a little bit differently or, you know, lean on your left hip. Those real kind of small changes, it's the same thing with a teacher. You know, walk to the left side of the room. Being able to actually provide that feedback on the teacher's work rather than saying, here's how you should teach, which is what training typically does, right? Training is just theory, not actual practice. This is giving teachers an opportunity to rehearse and then get coached by a real coach, whether that coach is someone with a formal title of instructional coach or just the teacher next door.”

Making the network work

Sibme’s novel, yet simple approach to improving teachers via their peers has proven to be much more effective than the typical training methods of the past.

Currently, Sibme works with more than 1,000 innovative schools, districts, and institutions – including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ASCD, Scholastic, the University of Texas, and the Houston Independent School District.

“At this point, I believe we're in 40 states,” says Wakefield. “We're also in some international countries. We have some channel partners that have also helped distribute for us. We probably are in every state in the US in some form or another, in a white-labeled version or within our own Sibme platform. We're definitely one of the leaders in our space for this type of next-generation solutions for professional learning and training.”

And as schools nationwide try to battle with teacher retention, Sibme offers its own solution by giving teachers concrete evidence that they are growing and improving as educators. After all, Sibme is an acronym for “Seeing is Believing Me,” which means that teachers will likely stay onboard if they feel that they are succeeding.

“One of our principals said that they don't have a retention problem because they invest so much in teacher excellence,” says Wakefield. “And when teachers feel successful, then they don't leave. They had, I think it was like an 86 percent decline in teacher turnover in one year just from the teachers being able to look at themselves and see that they’re growing and getting better and improving. That has a huge impact on their feelings of success in their jobs.”

A bright future

With more than 10 years under its belt, Sibme hopes the next 10 will offer even more advancements in the professional development space.

“We're sort of in that first sort of initial iteration of our release with AI,” says Wakefield. “That's only going to improve where things will just become more and more automated. The platform is just going to be able to help them do their work much more efficiently in the future. And they can coach and support far more people than they ever could without AI. And the experts can come in and leverage the AI to be so much more effective at their jobs.

“We’ll continue preparing the next generation of teachers, as well as in university teacher prep programs, so that teachers are getting better prepared for the realities of the classroom by getting a lot more reflection and practice.”

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