The idea for Splay, a unique device perfect for a mobile workforce, was born on the Rice University campus. Images courtesy

A Houston company born out of Rice University has crowdfunded its way into the manufacturing phase of its startup journey.

Arovia, founded by Alex Wesley and George Zhu, has a product that solves some major obstacles people on the go face as they work — or entertain — from home, a hotel, coffee shop, etc. Splay is a unique collapsable, portable device that doubles as both a display and projector.

The founders first launched their product in 2016 and raised over $700,000 from backers on their crowdfunding campaign. After raising investment funding, including an investment from the Texas Halo Fund, Wesley and Zhu recently returned to their crowdfunding roots and ran a 30-day pre-order campaign on Kickstarter during which they sold over $300,000 worth of product.

“We couldn't have made Splay without the Houston Startup Community," Wesley says.

Wesley was an MBA student when he met Zhu, who was working towards a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, after posting a job description in search of a co-founder, a requirement of the Owlspark program.

“Owlspark accepted the business idea, with the stipulation that I needed to find a co-founder,” says Wesley. “I sent out a job description, and a big part of the application process was to provide ideas for making this crazy idea work. I sent the job description at around 9 pm and received an email from George at around 1 am with an extremely detailed proposal. That was the start; and since then, we’ve basically been like brothers — I’ve even lived with him and his parents in China.”

Wesley credits Owlspark as an important part of their formation, beyond the impetus for their partnership.

“It was a great experience for us. The focus on customer interviews is something that is very easy to avoid, but it’s extremely important. You don’t have a product if nobody wants to buy it — you don’t have a company without customers," Wesley says. "During our time at Owlspark, we did over 100 customer interviews, which gave a lot of insight into the viability of the idea and who it would be useful for. We still utilize many of those insights today.”

But Owlspark wasn’t the only accelerator program that Wesley and Zhu joined. They also participated in Hax, a top hardware-focused accelerator, and Luminate, a top optics-focused accelerator. They also competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition, which Wesley says helped them refine their pitch which ultimately secured their funding.

“We pitched at angel groups including the Houston Angel Network and their fund The Halo Fund, Keiretsu Forum and their fund Keiretsu Capital, Rochester Angel Network, and the GOOSE Society. We also won the Texas A&M New Venture Competition,” says Wesley.

With this financial backing, Arovia received the necessary support for the R&D phase for Splay, taking the product into its manufacturing process and pre-sale campaign.

“Yes, it went very well,” shares Wesley, adding that they are still looking for support on the Indiegogo campaign. “Now we are focusing on pre-selling in other markets, like Japan."

Splay can be used as a portable screen, or the projector can be removed to be used on its own. Photo via Splay

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Rice names inaugural recipients of new grant program that's doling out $360,000

Four Houston research projects are splitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding from Rice University.

After announcing the One Small Step Grant program in September to support Rice-developed, lab-stage innovations, the university has named its inaugural recipients. After receiving nearly 30 applicants, four research projects were selected to share $360,000 in grant funding.

“Being able to fund near-commercial projects represents a leap forward in our mission of supporting the cutting-edge work of our faculty and students and helping bring those to market,” Adrian Trömel, assistant vice president for strategy and investments, says in a news release. “Feedback from industry and investors show that they’re excited on how the One Small Step grants help derisk these technologies, getting them ready to launch. Watch this space for the next generation of leading deeptech companies.”

The selected projects include:

  • PerisBio, developed by Samira Aglhara Fotovat and Samantha Fleury from Rice Professor Omid Veiseh's Lab, focuses on novel, hydrogel-encapsulated engineered "cell factories" for the minimally invasive treatment of endometriosis. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • Solidec, founded by Ryan Duchanois and Yang Xia from Rice Professor Haotian Wang's Lab, is a room temperature, solid-state direct air capture technology. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • HornetX, led by Rice Professor Aditya Mohite's Lab, aims to produce highly stable green hydrogen using a perovskite-based photoelectrochemical cell with leading efficiency. The project received a $80,000 award.
  • Coflux, developed by Jeremy Daum and Alec Ajnsztajn from the labs of Rice Professors Rafael Verduzco and Pulickel Ajayan, focuses on covalent organic framework-based photocatalysts for instream remediation of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from water. The project received a $80,000 award.

The Office of Innovation created an investment advisory committee — made up of entrepreneurs, investors and corporate executives across industries — to select these recipients. The grant program was funded by the Office of Innovation, with support from Breakthrough Energy Fellows for climate and energy projects

“The inaugural winners of the One Small Step Grant represent the innovative spirit and dedication to excellence that defines our students and faculty," Rice Chief Innovation Officer Paul Cherukuri says. "We are proud to support these groundbreaking projects on their journey from lab to market."

Innovative Texas hardtech startup secures award to test in space

ready for liftoff

A Houston-area startup and Greentown Houston member has secured a prestigious space prize.

College Station’s FluxWorks, which develops and commercializes non-contact magnetic gearboxes for use in extreme environments, was one of two startups to receive the Technology in Space Prize, which is funded by Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, manager of the International Space Station National Laboratory. Los Angeles-based Symphony Bio also received the honor.

Through the MassChallenge startup accelerator program, the two companies now get to utilize the research environment available through the ISS National Lab. CASIS and Boeing awarded Symphony Bio and FluxWorks more than $630,000 in total through the contest. Approximately $20 million has been awarded for more than 30 projects, which have already launched to the space station, since the event’s beginning.

"Boeing is excited to partner with CASIS to support the advancement of cutting-edge research using the unique environment of the orbiting laboratory,” says Scott Copeland, director for ISS research integration at Boeing, in a news release. “Enabling research that can help millions diagnosed with cancer and advancing mechanical innovations of non-contact magnetic gear technology will benefit human life in both the harsh environment of space and terrestrial environments.

"There are many smart people out there with great ideas who can leverage the space station to advance innovation, and these two companies serve as an inspiration to them all,” he continues.

FluxWorks, which won the 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition, will use the space station to test performance of a new gear. The magnetic gear will be tested to assess its startup behavior, dynamic operation, vibrational characteristics, and seal and bearing behavior in microgravity. Gearbox's goal is to reduce the mass of motors required in a variety of applications, but the lubricant needed to make them work is not designed for use in extreme environments, like space. Magnetic gears do not require lubricant, which makes them an alternative.

Symphony Bio will use the orbiting laboratory to develop a new cancer treatment that hopes to harness the immune system to fight tumors.

Houston innovator calls for collaboration from energy tech community

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 226

Scott Gale will be the first to admit that hosting a week of curated events targeted to a group of individuals within the tech and energy space isn't a novel idea — Climate Week NYC has been taking over Manhattan for over a decade. But Gale believes Houston deserves to have its own time to shine.

Earlier this month, Halliburton Labs, Rice Alliance, and Greentown Houston announced the inaugural Houston Energy and Climate Startup Week 2024 to take place in September, but Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs, says he hopes this is just the beginning of Houston organizations coming together to collaborate on the initiative.

"I think we have a really awesome initial coalition. Whether your the fifth company or organization to raise its hand to do something that week or the 50th — it really doesn't matter," Gale says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It really is an open invitation — and I want to make that super clear."



Gale says that he's looked at some of the successful week-long events — like SXSW and others — and the key factors are calendar coordination and cross promotion. Now that Houston has the week set — September 9 to 13, 2024 — it's time for everyone to fill that week with a density of events anywhere around Houston to showcase the city's innovative energy community.

Those interested can learn more or submit their event information online.

The initiative falls in line with how Gale has led Halliburton Labs from its early days in 2020 to now with a focus on community. While the corporate world always needs eyes on its return on investment, supporting the innovation ecosystem has been a bit of a leap of faith – and it always will be.

"There's always this idea of having a line of sight to the outcomes (of your investment). And when you're interfacing with or investing in the startup community, you don't have the benefit of line of sight. A lot of the things that are being solved for are just too early stage. And that can be really hard for corporates to wrap their heads around," Gale says.

"One of the things that we got to was this idea that you can invest in the startup community, and you don't know where the returns will come from, but you know they will come," he continues.