game changers

Rice University students collaborate on COVID-19 solutions

Rice 360˚ Institute of Global Health's student innovators created projects and devices — from disinfecting devices and optimized intubation tools — that respond to challenges presented by COVID-19. Courtesy of Rice University

An annual program with Rice University and its partners in Africa had to do things differently in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did operations have to shift to a virtual approach, but the projects themselves instead addressed the needs created by the disease.

Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health, which collaborates with the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) and the University of Malawi, The Polytechnic (Poly), continued their annual programming virtually over six weeks. The collaboration brings students together to solve global health issues, and this year's issue to address was overwhelmingly COVID-19.

"We had to give a lot of thought to whether we might have to cancel the program, and that was really heartbreaking to think about," says Rice 360˚ Director Rebecca Richards-Kortum, professor of bioengineering, in a news release. "Back in those days of late March and early April, I never really imagined how wonderful the virtual internship program could be."

Thirteen undergraduate interns and eight teaching assistants from Rice and Malawi, worked on six different projects, and three were presented in an online event on July 16. Here were the projects that were presented.

  • A disinfecting system that has the capability to sterilize multiple N95 masks at once. The system uses ultraviolet lights that can kill the coronavirus in around 30 minutes. Alternatively, the project included a smaller version that could be powered by solar energy. Yankholanga Pelewelo of MUST, Carolyn Gonawamba of Poly, and Andrew Abikhaled and Bhavya Gopinath of Rice developed the technology.
  • A walk-in decontamination unit that can decontaminate up to 3,000 people per day. The team of interns developed a prototype that consisted of PVC frame covered in plastic with nozzles to spray disinfectant. The project has already received interest from labs and hospitals for the device. Team members included Brenald Dzonzi of Poly, Mwayi Yellewa of MUST, and Kaitlyn Heintzelman, Krystal Cheung, and Sana Mohamed of Rice.
  • A redesigned intubation box that gives doctors better access to patients during the procedure. More than half of the 3,000 health care workers who have died from the coronavirus were doctors who focused on respiratory procedures, the team pointed out, and this daunting fact calls for redesigned tools. In total, the student innovators pitched three different designs that each included armholes in the sides, with a third hole on top to let a clinician or nurse assist with the procedure. The student team consisted of Chikumbutso Walani of Poly, Ruth Mtuwa of MUST, and Lauren Payne and Austin Hwang of Rice.

The other three projects included in the program but didn't present were designs for face shields, a hand sanitizer station and a contactless temperature monitor. All of the projects were led by teaching assistants Aubrey Chikunda and Chisomo Mukoka from MUST; Hannah Andersen, Nimisha Krishnaswamy, Alex Lammers and Ben Zaltsman of Rice; and Hope Chilunga and Francis Chilomo from Poly.

While pivoting the program to virtual comes with its challenges, Maria Oden — a professor of bioengineering, director of Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and director of Rice 360˚ — recognizes the opportunities it provides as well.

"It would have been easy and understandable to cancel this internship, but that's not what happened, and look what the result was," Oden says in the release. "Over 90 people have tuned in to see the work of the interns. That's something we've never achieved with our in-person internships. We can learn from this experience."


Rice 360° Virtual Internship Highlights – Summer 2020 www.youtube.com

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Building Houston

 
 

Cloudbreak Enterprises is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo via Getty Images

Lauren Bahorich is in the business of supporting businesses. In February 2020, she launched Cloudbreak Enterprises — B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage venture studio — with plans to onboard, invest in, and support around three new scalable companies a year. And, despite launching right ahead of a global pandemic, that's exactly what she did.

Bahorich, who previously worked at Golden Section Ventures, wanted to branch off on her own to create a venture studio to get in on the ground level of startups — to be a co-founder to entrepreneurs and provide a slew of in-house resources and support from development and sales to marketing and administration.

"We start at zero with just an idea, and we partner with out co-founders to build the idea they have and the domain expertise and the industry connections to take that idea and built a product and a company," Bahorich says.

Bahorich adds that there aren't a lot of venture studios in the United States — especially in Houston. While people might be more familiar with the incubator or accelerator-style of support for startups, the venture studio set up is much more intimate.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

Cloudbreak now has three portfolio companies, and is looking to onboard another three more throughout the rest of the year. Bahorich runs a team of 15 professionals, all focused on supporting the portfolio. While creating the studio amid the chaos of 2020 wasn't the plan, there were some silver linings including being able to start with part-time developers and transition them to full-time employees as the companies grew.

"Within the first month, we were in shutdown here in Houston," Bahorich says. "But it's been a great opportunity for us. Where a lot of companies were pivoting and reassessing, we were actually able to grow because we were just starting at zero ourselves."

Cloudbreak's inaugural companies are in various stages and industries, but the first company to be onboarded a year ago — Relay Construction Solutions, a bid leveling software for the construction industry — joined the venture studio as just an idea and is already close to first revenue and potentially new investors. Cloudgate is also creating a commercial real estate data management software and an offshore logistics platform. All three fall into a SaaS sweet spot that Bahorich hopes to continue to grow.

"We are looking to replace legacy workflows that are still performed in Excel or by email or phone," Bahorich says. "It's amazing how many opportunities there are that fit into that bucket — these high-dollar, error-prone workflows that are still done like it's 1985."

Given the hands-on support, Bahorich assumed she'd attract mostly first-time entrepreneurs who don't have experience with all the steps needed to launch the business. However, she says she's gotten interest from serial entrepreneurs who recognized how valuable the in-house support can be for expediting the early-stage startup process.

"What I'm realizing is a selling point is our in-house expertise. These founders are looking for technical co-founders," Bahorich says. "We can both provide that role and be capital partners."

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