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Rice University announces the 42 teams competing for over $1.5 million in its student startup contest

The 19th annual Rice Business Plan Competition has revealed its finalists. Courtesy of Rice University

One of the world's largest startup competitions just got larger. Rice University revealed the 42 student-led teams from around the world that will be competing for more than $1.5 million in prizes this spring. Of the 42, two are from Houston universities — Curenav from University of Houston and LilySpec from Rice University.

The 19th annual Rice Business Plan Competition will take place from April 4 to 6 at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

"The true measure of success for the Rice Business Plan Competition is the number of teams that launch, raise funding and go on to succeed in their business," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship at Rice University, in a release. "The competition has served as the launch pad for a great number of successful entrepreneurial ventures, and the success rate far exceeds the national average."

According to the release, a group of judges whittled down over 300 applications across in four categories: life sciences, medical devices, and digital health; digital, information technology, and mobile; energy, clean technology, and sustainability; and other innovations, investment opportunity.

A different set of 275 judges will review the business plans of the finalists for the competition. The organization has a new application, judging, and scoring system, which was created by Houston-based Poetic, a business tech company.

Here's some of the prizes that are on the line for these finalists, according to the release:

  • $100,000 Cisco Global Problem Solver prize
  • $350,000 Investment Grand Prize from The GOOSE Society of Texas
  • $100,000 OWL Investment Prize
  • $100,000 Houston Angel Network Investment Prize
  • $100,000 TiE Investment Prize
  • $50,000 NASA Space Exploration Innovation Award
  • $125,000 second place prize from Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund and Greg Novak of Novak Druce
  • $25,000 nCourage Courageous Women Entrepreneur Prize
  • $25,000 Women's Health and Wellness Prize awarded by Sandi Heysinger and Dick Williams
  • $25,000 Texas Business Hall of Fame Prize
  • $25,000 Texas Medical Center Accelerator, TMCx, Prizes, plus a guaranteed spot in their accelerator.
  • $20,000 Pearland Economic Development Corporation Prize
  • $100,000 Texas Halo Fund Investment Prize
  • $50,000 Pediatric Device Prize
  • The winner of the grand prize will ring the closing bell at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York.

The fan favorite can also take home a prize. The fourth annual People's Choice Competition is officially open for voting on Facebook.

Over 210 former RBPC competitors are still in business — with 25 being acquired‚ and have raised over a cumulative $2.2 billion in capital and created more than 3,000 new jobs, according to the release.

These are the 42 companies facing off in this year's awards:

  • EnKoat — Arizona State University
  • Crystal Sonic — Arizona State University
  • Flux Marine — Boston University
  • Formally — Brown University
  • Tarseer — Carnegie Mellon University
  • Delta Band — Carnegie Mellon University
  • Colonai — Columbia University
  • Incite Analytics — Cornell University
  • Neutroelectric — Dartmouth College
  • Chord — Harvard University and MIT
  • Modulus — Housing Solutions IIT Madras (India)
  • Treyetech — Johns Hopkins University
  • Avesta76 — Johns Hopkins University
  • Zilper Trenchless — Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • AeroShield — Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Vita Inclinata Technologies — Mitchell Hamline School of Law
  • BetterLife — Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
  • Sunthetics — New York University
  • Rhaeos — Northwestern University
  • Odin Technologies — Northwestern University
  • RagnaRock Geo — Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
  • Hearth Labs — Princeton University
  • LilySpec — Rice University
  • PL Biosciences RWTH — Aachen University (Germany)
  • NABACO — Texas State University
  • Embryologic — University of California, Irvine
  • MiVUE — UCLA
  • Tutorfly — UCLA
  • Vascugenix — University of Arkansas at Little Rock
  • Respira Labs — University of California, Berkeley
  • AC Biode — University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
  • Beltech — University of Chicago
  • BrewBike — University of Chicago and Northwestern University
  • Curenav — University of Houston
  • Speeko — University of Iowa
  • Calcium Solutions — University of Michigan
  • Dough — University of Michigan
  • dermadiagnostics — University of Notre Dame
  • Resonado — University of Notre Dame
  • Heart I/O — University of Pittsburgh
  • HRG Infrastructure Monitoring — University of Victoria (Canada)
  • Astrolabe Analytics — University of Washington

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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