An annual ranking recognized Rice University again — but the Houston school ranked a tad lower this year. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University has earned yet another accolade worth hooting about.

Niche, an education review and ranking website, has named Rice the ninth best college in the U.S., down from No. 6 last year. The Houston university receives an A+ in nine of the 12 ranking categories, including academics, diversity, and value. It gets an A for the party scene, a B+ for athletics, and a B for safety.

“We’re proud that Niche once again rates Rice not only one of the nation’s top universities, but also one of the nation’s best college values,” university President Reginald DesRoches said in 2022. “This is especially gratifying because Niche reflects the opinions of students and parents who know firsthand what outstanding education opportunities Rice continues to offer.”

Rice regularly ranks highly on lists of the best colleges and universities in the country, including those published by Niche, Forbes, and U.S. News & World Report.

“Rice is an awesome place. I went to Rice because I wanted professors who actually wanted to see their students succeed, and I can confidently say that’s what I found at Rice,” a student wrote in a Niche review. “The classes are thorough but the tests are very reasonable and focus on the material we learned in class.”

Topping Niche’s national list is Yale University, followed by Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Princeton University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth College.

Rice comes in at No. 12 on Niche’s list of the “best value colleges” in the U.S. and ranks first among the best colleges in Texas. Here are the top 10 Texas schools, including the eighth-ranked University of Houston:

1. Rice University
2. University of Texas at Austin
3. Texas A&M University (College Station)
4. Trinity University (San Antonio)
5. Southern Methodist University (University Park)
6. Texas Christian University (Fort Worth)
7. Texas Tech University (Lubbock)
8. University of Houston
9. University of Texas Permian Basin (Odessa)
10. Baylor University (Waco)

Other Houston-area schools in the Texas ranking are:

  • University of Houston – Clear Lake (No. 13)
  • University of St. Thomas (No. 26)
  • University of Houston – Downtown (No. 39)
  • Prairie View A&M University (No. 43)

“Choosing where to go to college is easily one of the most significant — and expensive — decisions of a person’s life. Niche’s mission is to ensure that every college-bound student has access to easy, transparent and free resources … to help them find their best fit,” Luke Skurman, founder and CEO of Niche, says in a news release.

The 20th annual Rice Business Plan Competition took place virtually from June 17 to 19 and awarded over $1.2 million in investment and cash prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University student startup competition names 2020 winners and awards over $1.2M in prizes

big money

For the 20th year, the Rice Business Plan Competition has awarded prizes and investments to student-led startups from around the ward. While this year's competition was postponed and virtually held, the show went on with 42 startups pitching virtually June 17 to 19.

After whittling down the 42 startups to seven finalists, the RBPC judges named the winners. And, this year, all seven finalists walked away with a monetary prize. Here's how the finalists cleaned up.

  • Aurign, which provides publishing services for recording artists and record labels, from Georgia State University, won first place and the $350,000 grand prize from GOOSE Capital. Aurign also won RG Advisory Partners' prize of $25,000, bringing the company's total to $375,000 won.
  • Coming in second place with a $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce) was Dartmouth College's nanopathdx, which is creating diagnostic tools for chronic and infectious diseases. Nanopathdx won two other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from Pearland Economic Development and Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs — for a total of $150,000 won. The company also won the Palo Alto Software Live Plan award and an award from SheSpace.
  • Harvard University's Fractal — a cloud computing tech company that enables powerful remote work tools — won third place and a $50,000 investment from Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing their total prize to $150,000.
  • In fourth place was RefresherBoxx from RWTH Aachen University in Germany. The company has created disinfecting devices for clothing and recently pivoted to create a COVID-19 application. The startup won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright for placing in the finals, but also walked away with a $100,000 investment from TiE Houston Angels, bringing the startup's total prize money to $105,000.
  • The University of Chicago's Beltech, which has created a safer, longer lasting battery, won fifth place and a $5,000 award sponsored by EY. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing the total amount won to to $105,000.
  • Cardiosense from Northwestern University, which has created a wearable heart monitor device, took sixth place in the competition and won a $5,000 award sponsored by Chevron Technology Ventures. Cardiosense also won two other monetary prizes — TMC Innovation's $100K TMC Healthcare Innovation investment and NASA's $25,000 Human Health and Performance Award — bringing the total amount won to $130,000. The company also won OFW Law's prize.
  • Relavo, a safer home dialysis treatment company from Johns Hopkins University, came in seventh place and won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Shell Ventures. Relavo also won three other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs, and Polsinelli's $15,000 technology prize — bringing the startup's total prize money to $70,000.
Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary prizes. Here's a list of those.
  • BIOMILQ, a female-founded startup out of Duke University that can cultivate breast milk outside of the body, won The Artemis Fund's $100,000 prize.
  • The University of Maryland's Algen Air — a natural air purifier that uses algae to filter air — won NASA's $25,000 Space Exploration Award.
  • SlumberFlow — a sleep apnea treatment device from the University of Michigan — won the the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium.
  • Rice University's own EVA, which streamlines vascular access for medical professionals, won the Texas Business Hall of Fame's $25,000 prize.
  • Contraire — a predictive analysis control system for aeration process within municipal wastewater treatment plants — from Oklahoma State University won Polsinelli's $15,000 Energy Innovation prize.
While not ready to name investment recipients at the virtual event, the Owl Investment Group announced they will be inviting some companies to pitch to them directly.
Additional non-monetary prizes included:
  • Capital Factory's Golden Ticket prize to EVA from Rice University, NanoCare from Texas State University, and SeebeckCellTechnologies from the University of Texas at Arlington.
  • MercuryFund'sElevatorPitch winners included: KnoNap from Georgetown University (first place), Steeroflex from the University of California San Diego (second place), Encapsulate from the University of Connecticut (third place), RefresherBoxx (fourth place), and NanoCare from Texas State University (fifth place).
The virtual event wrapped up with the announcement of the 21st annual RBPC, which is set for April 8 to 10 next year.
Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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

who's who

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

coming to Hou

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.