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

 
 

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

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