The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge is taking place this month. See which student-founded startups made it to the finals. Photo courtesy of Rice

Five student-founded startups are headed to the finals of a prestigious Rice University startup pitch competition later this month.

The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, or NRLC, is a venture competition that features Rice University's top student-founded startups. The annual competition is open to undergraduate, graduate, and MBA students. The organization also has an alumni track, which will not be held this year, but will open its applications in 2024.

According to Rice, NRLC attracted more applicants than ever this year, and the organization had to narrow down the finalists in two rounds. The first round selecter 12 companies and the second round narrowed down to the five finalists that will compete at NRLC's 2023 championship event is on April 19. The finalists will pitch their business ventures to win a share of $100,000 in equity-free funding. The event is free and open to anyone interested in attending.

Here are the five startups founded by Rice students that have made it to the finals.

Goldie

Goldie, founded by three Rice MBA students, uses its algorithm-based fit finder technology to help online shoppers find their perfect fits digitally based on physical measurements and production size charts. On the other end of the transactions, Goldie lowers the 21 percent e-commerce rate of returns and increases customer lifetime value.

Founders: Viviane Nguyen, CEO and MBA ‘23; Stephanie Zhou, COO and MBA ‘23; Samantha Wong, CTO and Master's of science in Mechanical Engineering and MBA ‘22.

Separion

As the world continues to solve the challenges associated with energy storage, the demand for lithium continues to rise. Separion has a solution that uses brines already produced by geothermal energy and provides an environmentally friendly extraction process will supply lithium faster, purer, and greener.

Founders: Yuren Feng, CEO and Environmental Engineering PhD ‘24; Xiaochuan Huang, CTO and Environmental Engineering PhD ‘23; Ze He, COO and Chemical Engineering PhD ‘23

Sygne Solutions

The world is riddled with "forever" chemicals, as defined by the CDC. These per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances build up in our bodies, dever degrade, and can cause many health issues, such as cancer, asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, and cause congenital disabilities. Sygne Solutions has created a patent-pending technology that permanently destroys PFAS – thereby eliminating them from the environment. The process is scalable and sustainable, and targets the substances in water.

Founders: Bo Wang, Chemical Engineering PhD ‘23; Subash Kannan, MBA ‘24; Dana Vazquez, MBA ‘24; Kimberly Heck, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Research Scientist

Tidepay

Tidepay is targeting the shipping industry with its HR and payroll solution that streamlines the onboarding process and helps transfer wages to their globally positioned employees’ bank accounts. The technology enables character reading technology to scan documents and verify eligibility and provides digital bank accounts and debit cards to unbanked seafarers. They also serve the seafarer by offering financial and logistical support services beyond remittance.

Founders: Andrew Pitigoi, CEO and Finance BBA ‘26; Devin Shah, CFO and Finance BBA ‘26

Tierra Climate

Tierra Climate is looking at a unique challenge within the grid-scale battery business. Normally not compensated for the clean storage work they do, these battery operators are able to be compensated on the Tierra Climate platform, where battery projects can sell verified Carbon Avoidance Offsets to corporate buyers.

Founders: Emma Konet, CTO and MBA ’24; Jacob Mansfield, CEO and Harvard MBA ‘23

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

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Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.