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)

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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