winner, winner

Rice University student startup challenge names winning teams

Six Rice University student-led startups pitched and were awarded $75,000 in equity-free funding. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University's six student startup teams competed for thousands of dollars in investment prizes, and one company came out on top — but a few other companies walked away with fresh funding too.

The 2022 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge doled out $75,000 to student-founded companies at Rice last week. Helix Earth Technologies, which has developed a filter that helps limit water waste in power plants, and its founder, Rawand Rasheed, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Rice University, won first place ans $35,000. The company been testing its technology on the power plants on campus.

The second-place team was EpiFresh, which created a protein-based coating doubles the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables, won $25,000. Guildata, which provides global health organizations with data that shows the greatest return on investment, won third place and $10,000.

The competition also included three additional awards:

  • Guildata won the $1,000 RISE@Rice: The Sen Social Pioneer Prize
  • SkySpace won the $1,500 Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations
  • Aqualight Materials won the $2,500 Chevron Tech Ventures Climate Innovations Prize
  • Berman Foods, an artisanal plant-based cheese and spread provider, won the $1,500 Norman E. Leebron Audience Choice Award

This year's competition saw participation from almost 200 students and a record 84 teams. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship whittled those entries down for judges, which included Thomas Ball, co-founder and managing director at Next Coast Ventures; Lisa Besserman, managing director at Expa; and Xiaodi Zhang, chief product officer at 1stDibs. On April 20, six finalists pitched in the championship round in five-minute pitches followed by seven minutes of questions.

Additionally, all competitors received personalized mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and subject matter experts. The program started in 2017 with 15 student-run companies vying for a win. This year's NRLC was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions, and Chevron Technology Ventures.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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