Big checks

Rice University startup competition awards record $2.9 million in prizes

The winner of the Rice Business Plan Competition walked away with over $700,000 in prizes. Courtesy of Rice University

On Saturday, over 20 organizations were prepared to write checks to entrepreneurs competing in the Rice Business Plan Competition, but the largest and richest student business plan competition doled out almost double what it initially intended to award.

Earlier this year, Rice University announced the 42 teams that would be competing for $1.5 million in prizes, but ended up giving out a record $2.9 million. While a few organizations announced they had trouble picking a single company and named two recipients, Houston-based GOOSE Society surprised everyone with almost $1 million in unexpected prizes.

"It shows the diversity in expertise and interest of our investors, and how much the quality of the deals grown at RBPC," says Samantha Lewis, director at GOOSE.

GOOSE, which is a network of investors, originally intended to provide the grand prize — a $350,000 check to the company with the top score from the judges. The 2019 grand prize winner was Vita Inclinata Technologies, a company from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law that created a technology to advance helicopter safety. On top of that, GOOSE investors tacked on five more prizes.

  • $300,000 to Resonado, a more efficient speaker design company, from the University of Notre Dame
  • $200,000 to Rhaeos, a medical device company that has a wearable sensor for neurosurgical patients, from the Northwestern University
  • $200,000 to spotLESS Materials, a company that created a repellant coating material, from Penn State University
  • $125,000 to CataLight, a more sustainable water filtration system company, from the University of Waterloo
  • $100,000 to BrewBike, a campus bike delivery concept, from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago

GOOSE has surprised the crowd before at past RBPC awards banquets, Lewis says, but that's usually been one or two extra prizes. This is the first year the organization has committed this much — and there's potential for these companies to receive even more.

The group now begins is true due diligence process, Lewis says, and depending on what they find, they could invest more. The 2017 winner, Pennsylvania-based Forest Devices Inc., was awarded GOOSE's $300,000 grand prize, but the company eventually received a $2 million investment instead.

Two Houston-based student teams competed in the program, but neither were named even semifinalists. Curenav from University of Houston didn't receive any prize money, but Rice's LilySpec received the $25,000 Pearland Economic Development Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize as well as the $1,000 Mercury Fund prize and the $1,000 Orrick Awards Banquet Company Showcase Prize.

The 19th annual contest named seven finalists according to the judges' top scores — all receiving over $100,000 in prizes each.

  • First place: Vita Inclinata Technologies (won a total value of nearly $700,000)
  • Second place: Resonado (won more than $300,000 )
  • Third place: spotLESS Materials (won more than $360,000)
  • Fourth place: Rhaeos (won more than $450,000)
  • Fifth place: Zilper Trenchless, which developed a way to install pipes under streets with minimum effect on the surface, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (won more than $435,000)
  • Sixth place: BrewBike (won more than $100,000)
  • Seventh place: CataLight (won more than $140,000)
Syzygy Plasmonics, which is creating a cleaner energy source that runs on hydrogen, closed a $5.8 million round. Photo via plasmonics.tech

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions.

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best tells InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Syzygy's technology is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round led by MIT's The Engine and Houston-based The GOOSE Society of Texas. Evok Innovations, a previous investor in the company, and angel investors from the Creative Destruction Lab also contributed to the round.

The funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

"We're starting to solidify relationships and get customers ready," Best says.

Earlier this year, the company also received funding from the Department of Energy and from the National Science Foundation SBIR Program. The DOE tasked Syzygy with creating a reactor that transforms ammonia into hydrogen for fueling purposes. For the SBIR Program, the company is creating a reactor that processes carbon dioxide.