winners revealed

Rice University student startups win $65,000 in competition

The annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge awarded equity-free cash prizes to three impressive student startups. Photo courtesy of Rice University

A Rice University startup competition concluded with a big win for a company started by students trying to use tech to help prevent veteran suicide.

The startup, rutd: resources united. technology driven., a secure platform that can deliver more than 14,000 mental health resources to veterans, won first prize at the virtually held H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge last week. The prize included a $27,500 check.

Seven other Rice-affiliated startups pitched for judges at the event for a shot at equity-free seed funding. The program is a part of Rice's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or Lilie.

"With the biggest and most diverse field of competitors in the history of the competition, it shows that at Rice and Lilie, you don't have to choose between being a student and working on your startup. We empower you to do both," says Kyle Judah, executive director of Lilie, in a press release. "These founders took advantage of all our resources and opportunities — which is why they had million-dollar partnerships and tens of thousands of users at competition time."

Second place went to Green Room, a startup that aims to provide tools — like payments and tax compliance — for Houstonians in the live music industry. The Green Room team won $20,000.

In third place was A440, a company focused on "bringing the creator economy to classical music, helping a centuries-old art form find new life in the modern era," according to the release. A440 won the $15,000 third place prize, as well as the $2,500 Norman Dresden Leebron Audience Choice Award.

The competition, which was sponsored by was sponsored by Mercury Fund and T-Minus Solutions and supported by the Napier family and the Liu Family Foundation, also provided mentoring and pitch coaching opportunities from experts and the Rice community.

The judges included Rice alumni Claire Shorall, CEO and co-founder of Topknot; Sunit Patel, CFO of Ibotta; Monica Pal, founding partner of How Women Invest; Chris Staffel, managing director of GOOSE Capital; and Brad Husick, CEO and founder of IdeaSense.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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