At a panel at virtually hosted CERAWeek, energy innovation stakeholders discussed the future of cleantech. Photo via Getty Images

The energy technology and innovation ecosystem is comprised of stakeholders across the industry — from the academic institutions that house researchers in the field and the entrepreneurs with the big ideas to the venture backers who fund the scaling of these ideas and the corporations who put these new technologies into their supply chain.

A recent panel at CERAWeek by IHS Markit explored where the energy tech ecosystem is headed — and what all needs to be done to advance innovation. Missed the discussion or just want a refresher on on the highlights? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual panel.

“We need more energy innovation, and when we think about the energy system of the future there are key areas where we need more technology developed. We all need to encourage and support that early innovation.”

— Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. Burger mentions that it's about collaboration. "All of us play a role in a critical part of the development."

“Not only do we have to have the innovation pipeline, but then we’ve got to really move quickly to work with governments, corporations, public-private partnerships that can be formed around these technologies.”

— Ashley Grosh, vice president of Breakthrough Energy. Grosh echoes the need for collaborative efforts. No one part of the equation — such as corporates, scientists, academics, etc. — can move the needle by itself.

“We face a need to run the current energy system extremely well … while also envisioning a new energy system.”

— Burger says. Burger, who alludes to the state's recent power grid failure as an example, says this balancing act is a challenge across the board for energy companies.

“Government is going to have to play aggressively to solve the climate problem.”

— Ilan Gur, CEO of Activate Global Inc., a nonprofit organization that WORKS with U.S.-based funders and research institutions to support a group of fellows. Gur says there needs to be some aspect of incentivization somewhere in the innovation process to drive results.

“Where the market works, let it work. And where it needs help, let’s double down.”

— Burger says, adding that it will take the public, corporations, innovators, and capital to make a difference. "If you can align those all toward derisking then scaling that technology, we will all benefit from the fruits of that labor.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund, Barbara Burger of Chevron, and Lauren Bahorich of Cloudbreak Ventures. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries recently making headlines — all three focusing on investing in innovation from B2B software to energy tech.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

When Samantha Lewis started her new principal role at Houston-based Mercury Fund, she hit the ground running. Top priority for Lewis is building out procedure for the venture capital firm as well as finding and investing in game-changing fintech.

"(I'm focused on) the democratization of financial services," Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, spearheaded by Barbara Burger, has announced their latest fund. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's recently announced $300 million Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. Click here to read more.

Lauren Bahorich, CEO and founder of Cloudbreak Enterprises

Cloudbreak Enterprises, founded by Lauren Bahorich is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo courtesy of Cloudbreak

Lauren Bahorich wanted to stand up a venture studio that really focused on growing and scaling B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage technology. She founded Cloudbreak Enterprises last year and already has three growing portfolio companies.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

This year, Bahorich is focused on onboarding a few new disruptive Houston startups. Click here to read more.

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, spearheaded by Barbara Burger, has announced their latest fund. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

show me the money

Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.

In the latest round up of Houston innovation news you may have missed, local venture groups announce new investments, Houston schools launch programs, and more. Photo via UH.edu

University of Houston engineers recognized, TMCx company raises funds, and more local innovation news

short stories

It's been a horrific week for both the city of Houston and the state of Texas. Millions of residents have lost power and/or water due to a winter storm that brought low temps. For this reason, Houston innovation news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, the Texas Medical Center's Venture Fund and Chevron Technology Ventures make new investments, University of Houston professors make big moves, both Rice University and UH announce new programs, and more.

TMCx company raises $2 million

The Texas Medical Center Venture Fund announced its latest investment. Noninvasix Inc., a startup working on novel precision oximetry technology announced it has closed an over-subscribed seed round at $2 million led by the TMC Venture Fund with support from Philips and GPG Ventures. The funds will help the company advance product development and attain FDA clearance.

"TMC Venture Fund has been a strong supporter of Noninvasix since our initial investment in the company, and we look forward to our continued partnership with them," says Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation, in a news release. "The potential of this platform technology to guide better clinical decision-making and improve outcomes has us excited to be part of the effort that brings the optoacoustic technology to the market."

The Noninvasix team has created a solution for the safe, accurate and non-invasive monitoring of infant welfare in the neonatal intensive care unit.

"Brain hypoxia, characterized by restricted blood flow to the brain, accounts for 23 percent of all neonatal deaths worldwide and costs the U.S. healthcare system over $7 billion per year, making the development of an accurate and precise patient monitoring system a top maternal-fetal health priority," says Noninvasix CEO Graham Randall, in the release.

"Noninvasix's novel solution utilizes optoacoustic monitoring of cerebral venous oxygenation to accurately measure the adequacy of the oxygen supply to a baby's brain in real time."

The Cannon and the University of Houston launch new partnership

A UH program has teamed up with a local startup development organization. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon has partnered up with the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston to launch a semester-long program that will introduce students to the Startup Development Organization Network.Through the new collaboration, students will have access to new opportunities to interact and connect with professionals and advisers.

"We couldn't be prouder to partner with the University of Houston and the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship to engage with the students that will soon be driving innovation in Houston and beyond," says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "UH is widely recognized for its excellence in entrepreneurial education and what Dave Cook and his team have built through The Wolff Center is second to none.

"The Cannon is excited for the opportunity to play a role in enhancing the entrepreneurial education journey through helping to provide a bridge between world-class academic programming and the commercial entrepreneurial landscape."

Students at WCE will receive access to The Cannon's online platform, Cannon Connect, as well as access to exclusive events hosted by The Cannon.

Rice University launches new data science program

Rice University is now offering a master's in data science beginning in the fall. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University has announced it's creating a Master of Data Science program. The degree is offered through the George R. Brown School of Engineering and managed by the Department of Computer Science. With classes beginning in the fall, applications are now open.

"The field of data science touches almost every industry in our economy," says Scott Rixner, a professor in the Rice's Department of Computer Science, in a press release. "This degree will provide those seeking to find new careers, or to advance in their current careers, the opportunity to acquire an indispensable skill set and to build future-focused critical expertise that will drive future innovation."

The 31-credit program will be offer classes both online and face-to-face, according to the release. The courses will deliver the skills needed to collect, evaluate, interpret and present data for effective decision-making across a variety of industries. The new program joins the online Master of Computer Science degree that was launched in 2019.

"Data science has revolutionized all fields of study and many sectors of the industry where data is central to the scientific or industrial endeavor," says Rice Dean of Engineering Luay Nakhleh, in the release. "Data-driven discovery has complemented hypothesis-driven discovery, and it is here to stay. This degree positions our students for rewarding, life-long careers that provide meaningful impact in design and research in a multitude of industries."

Houston biotech company with COVID-19 treatment enters agreement with UH

A UH-founded biotech company has a new partnership to announce. Image via Getty Images

AuraVax Therapeutics Inc. has entered into an exclusive license agreement with the University of Houston for its intranasal vaccine and therapeutics technology platform. The biotech company is developing novel intranasal vaccines and therapies to help patients defeat debilitating diseases including COVID-19. This new agreement upgrades the optioned intellectual property between UH and AuraVax announced in October.

The vaccine is a nasal inhalant, similar to FluMist, and was developed by Navin Varadarajan, an M.D. Anderson professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UH. Varadarajan is a co-founder of AuraVax.

"We are excited to rapidly expand our relationship with the University of Houston to advance the development of this novel intranasal approach to tackle respiratory viruses. We plan to stop COVID-19 at its point of entry — the nasal cavity — and we believe our intranasal platform represents a differentiated solution that will lead to a vaccine to create sustained immunity to COVID-19 and other viruses," says Varadarajan, in the news release.

Chevron Technology Ventures makes latest investment

CTV has recently invested in a geothermal energy company. Photo via eavor.com

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures has announced its latest investment in Eavor Technologies Inc., a Canadian company that closed a $40 million funding round. Eavor is working on a scalable geothermal technology and hopes to power the equivalent of 10 million homes by 2030.

Eavor-Loop™, Eavor's technology, uses the natural heat of the earth like a battery and is different from what's on the market because of its scalable and transportatable application — as well as because it produces zero emissions.

Along with CTV, investors included bp Ventures, Temasek, BDC Capital, Eversource1, and Vickers Venture Partners.

"I am delighted that with the funding closed in this round we can look forward to bringing down the cost of clean, dispatchable power to a universally competitive level – an important milestone for renewable energy," says John Redfern, president and CEO of the company, in a news release. "The involvement of companies such as bp and Chevron represents a fantastic endorsement of our technology, the progress we have made to date and the promise for its global scalability."

3 UH engineers named to Academy of Inventors

Three UH engineers have been named senior members of the National Academy of Inventors. Photos via UH.edu

The National Academy of Inventors have named three University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering researchers senior members for 2021.

Hien Nguyen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Jeffrey Rimer, Abraham E. Dukler Endowed Chair, William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and Gangbing Song, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering, are among the 61 selected for the distinguishment, according to a press release from UH.

"This national distinction honoring the research and scholarship of Drs. Nguyen, Rimer and Song is emblematic of the reputation for innovation fostered at the Cullen College of Engineering," says Paula Myrick Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH, in the release. "I congratulate these three outstanding faculty members for this well-deserved recognition."

Nguyen works with biomedical data analysis and artificial intelligence, Rimer's expertise in the processes behind crystal growth and formation, and Song researches the development of actuator systems for aerospace, biomedical and oil exploration applications.

A full list of NAI Senior Members is available on the NAI website.

Aziz Gilani to be recognized nationally

A Houston investor is being recognized nationally. Photo va mercuryfund.com

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Houston-based Mercury Fund, was just selected for an award from the National Venture Capital Association. Gilani is being recognized with the Outstanding Service Award for his work last year outlining and explaining the Paycheck Protection Program from the Small Business Administration to entrepreneurs.

The award will be presented at NVCA's virtual ceremony on March 9. More info on the award ceremony here.

From new board members at Houston Exponential to startups receiving funding, here are the latest short stories of Houston innovation. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Houston tech company receives corporate investment, HX names new board members, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a startup snags funding from a new corporate venture group, a blockchain startup gets major kudos, CTV's latest investment, and more.

HX names newest board members

HX has five more members of its board. Photo courtesy

Houston Exponential has announced five new members to its governing board. Joining the group is:

  • Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and general partner at The Artemis Fund
  • Martha Castex-Tatum, Houston City Council member
  • Gordon Daugherty, co-founder and president of Capital Factory
  • Emily Keeton, CFO of Mercato and co-founder of Station Houston
  • Roberto Moctezuma, founder and CEO of Fractal River
The board is chaired by Barbara Burger of Chevron and Chevron Technology Ventures. She will continue on as chair until the end of next year, when Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund will take over.

New corporate venture fund makes first investment

Houston-based SmartAC emerged from stealth mode this summer. Photo courtesy of smartac.com

Pinnacle Ventures, a corporate venture fund created by Pinnacle based just outside of Houston in Pasadena, announced the company has invested in Houston-based SmartAC.com, a member-based technology platform that monitors the health of air conditioning systems.

The deal is Pinnacle Ventures' first investment and will help SmartAC.com expand their service offerings to homeowners and top-level HVAC service providers.

"We are excited to have Pinnacle Ventures invest in our company and to have Ryan Sitton, founder and CEO of Pinnacle, join our board," says Josh Teekell, founder and CEO of SmartAC.com, in a news release. "The capital provided by Pinnacle Ventures will help us accelerate the growth required to meet our customer demand, which has scaled quickly since our launch in June.

"Additionally, this capital will help us power a new residential connected service economy for a $30 billion industry while offering our service partners a way to increase loyalty through improved transparency and customer experience," Teekell continues. "We're very much aligned with Pinnacle Ventures' focus on improving reliability through innovation and are confident that this investment will help us support our end users."

Data Gumbo recognized as an innovative blockchain company

CB Insights ranked 50 blockchain companies and one Houston startup made the cut. Photo via CB Insights

CB Insights released its inaugural Blockchain 50 ranking and named Houston-based Data Gumbo among the top blockchain companies in the world.

"The Blockchain 50, which we've created in conjunction with Blockdata, was born out of a desire to reduce that uncertainty and recognize the pioneering companies using the blockchain," says CB Insights CEO Anand Sanwal in the study. "This inaugural class of the Blockchain 50 is tackling a range of use cases across trade finance, capital markets, exchanges and more and are being used by banks, governments and major retailers."

Combined, the 50 companies included in the ranking have raised over $3 billion across 113 deals since 2017.

"Being named to this CB Insights' list is an honor and testament to the power of Data Gumbo's blockchain network GumboNet," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and Founder, of Data Gumbo in a news release. "Our smart contracts enable companies to leverage blockchain technology across the global business infrastructure to capture critical cost savings and value, forging a new foundation for commercial transactions: one based on trust, transparency, speed and visibility."

Currux Vision is deploying its technology in California

The Houston company's technology has been tested in California. Photo via currux.vision

Houston-based Currux Vision, which uses infra-tech artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions for smart city infrastructure, has conducted testing with the city of San Jose, California, and its department of transportation.

According to the tests, Currux Vision's SmartCity ITS can operate at 99 percent accuracy in the city. Moreover, Currux Vision can achieve high resolution results with older legacy digital and analog camera systems that offer lower resolution. Testing included but was not limited to vehicle detection and classification, turning movement counts, pedestrian counts, bicycle discrimination, stopped vehicles, and speeding, according to a press release.

"Increasing urbanization, traffic, mode shift, and increasing focus on safety drive the urgent need for a next-generation traffic management solution like our SmartCity ITS," says Alex Colosivschi, founder and CEO of Currux Vision, in the release. "We believe that efficient mobility and being able to do more with less creates economic opportunities, enables trade, improves quality of life, and facilitates access to markets and services effectively leveraging resources. ... We are happy to have worked with a great partner like San José's Department of Transportation to prove these transportation solutions."

Chevron Technology Ventures invests in software company

Chevron Technology Ventures, led by Barbara Burger, has announced its latest investment. Courtesy of CTV

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures has invested in a Denver-based container platform company's latest round. Nubix today announced it has closed $2.7 million in seed financing led by Tuscan Management with strategic investment from Chevron Technology Ventures, in addition to participation from other new investors.

"Businesses worldwide are investing in digital transformation initiatives with IoT-based solutions," says Rachel Taylor, Nubix co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "Our unique innovation in container and services technology enables unprecedented agility and safety when building, deploying and managing applications at the edge.

"We're delivering on digital transformation's requirements for agile compute at the edge, empowering organizations to analyze data in real-time where the data is actually created. This is a massive market opportunity for Nubix and we look forward to working hand-in-hand with our new investors as we drive agility and intelligence to the edge."

Golden Section Ventures invests in Austin startup

GSV has invested in Accelerist's impact-driven software. Image via accelerist.com

Austin-based Accelerist Inc. raised a $1 million investment round led by Houston-based Golden Section Ventures to catalyze the company's growth plans. Accelerist specializes in social impact partnership technology that nonprofits use to prospect, screen, access and measure the efficacy of their relationships with each other.

"We are very impressed with what Brittany (Hill, CEO and founder) and her team have built and are excited to join the journey," says Dougal Cameron, General Partner at GSV. "We are confident that Accelerist can be the standard of excellence for social impact partnership technology. This solution is more needed than ever."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco