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

 
 

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

As Houston heads toward the end of summer with no major vaccine or treatment confirmed for COVID-19, local research institutions are still hard at work on various coronavirus-focused innovations.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news.

Baylor College of Medicine genomics team to partner for local COVID-19 testing

Houston millionaire to start biotech accelerator for companies focusing on regenerative medicine

Two departments at BCM are working with the county on COVID-19 testing. Getty Images

Two Baylor College of Medicine institutions have teamed up to aid in local COVID-19 testing. The Human Genome Sequencing Center and the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research — under the leadership of BCM — are partnering with local public health departments to provide polymerase chain reaction testing of COVID-19 samples, according to a news release from BCM.

"We are pleased to work with the outstanding local government groups in this critical public health effort," says Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the HGSC and Wofford Cain chair and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, in the release. "We are proud of the tireless determination and expertise of our centers and college staff that enabled the rapid development of this robust testing capacity to serve the greater Houston community."

Baylor is among the testing providers for Harris County Public Health, and people can receive testing following a pre-screening questionnaire online.

"We are fortunate to have Baylor College of Medicine as a close partner during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, in the release. "This is a challenging time for our community and as the need for increased testing capacity and getting results to residents faster has grown, Baylor has risen to the occasion. There are countless unsung heroes across Harris County who have stepped up to the plate during this pandemic and Baylor College of Medicine is one of them."

COVID-19 testing samples are collected from testing sites and delivered to the Alkek Center. After isolating the virus, genomic material is extracted and sent to the HGSC to quantitative reverse transcription PCR testing. Should the sample's RNA sequence match the virus, then it is positive for COVID-19. The sequencing must test positive three times to be considered overall positive.

Results are returned within 48 hours, and the lab has a capacity of more than 1,000 samples a day. Since May, the team has tested over 30,000 samples.

"We knew we had all the pieces to stand up a testing center fast – large scale clinical sequencing, experts in virology and molecular biology, and a secure way to return results to patients," says Ginger Metcalf, Human Genome Sequencing Center Director of Project Development, in the release. "We are also fortunate to have such great partners at Harris County Public Health, who have done an amazing job of gathering, tracking and delivering samples, especially for the most at-risk members of our community."

National Science Foundation renews Rice University funding amid pandemic

José Onuchic (left) and Peter Wolynes are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics has been granted a five-year extension from the National Science Foundation. The grant for $12.9 million will aid in continuing the CTBP's work at the intersection of biology and physics.

The center — which was founded in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to Rice in 2011 — is led by Peter Wolynes and José Onuchic.

"We have four major areas at the center," Onuchic says in a news release. "The first is in chromatin theory and modeling, developing the underlying mathematical theory to explain the nucleus of the cell — what Peter calls the 'new nuclear physics.' The second is to test ideas based on the data being created by experimentalists. The third is to understand information processing by gene networks in general, with some applications related to metabolism in cancer. The fourth is to study the cytoskeleton and molecular motors. And the synergy between all of these areas is very important."

Onuchic adds that an upcoming donation of a supercomputer by AMD will help the center's ongoing research into COVID-19 and four institutions — Rice, Northeastern, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston — are working collaboratively on the study,

"We're all set to move on doing major COVID-related molecular simulations on day one," he says in the release. "The full functioning of a center requires a synergy of participation. Rice is the main player with people from multiple departments, but Baylor, Northeastern and Houston play critical roles."

University of Houston offers free mental health therapy for restaurant workers

Texas restaurant workers can get free mental health care from a UH initiative. Photo via Elle Hughes/Pexels

Through a collaboration with Southern Smoke and Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the University of Houston Clinical Psychology program launched a a free mental health care program for Texas-based food and beverage employees and their children.

"During normal times this is a high stress industry where people work very hard in environments where they are just blowing and going all the time," says John P. Vincent, professor of psychology and director of the UH Center for Forensic Psychology, in a news release.

The program has 14 graduate students who converse with a total of 30 patients and meet weekly with supervisors at UH.

"This opportunity allows our clinical program to reach people in the community who usually don't have access to mental health services," says Carla Sharp, professor of psychology and director of clinical training, in the release.

For restaurant industry workers looking for help and care, they can visit the Mental Health Services page on Southern Smoke's website.

According to Vincent, this is just the beginning.

"We're discussing it," says Vincent in the release. "But as far as I'm concerned it can just keep going and going."

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