Here's what student-founded companies won big at this annual competition. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Five startups founded by Rice University students pitched their companies this week — and walked away with more than $100,000 in prizes.

The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, or NRLC, is an annual competition that selects a small group of student-founded startups from Rice University. The program, which is open to undergraduate, graduate, and MBA students, concluded on April 19 and doled out several investment prizes to the finalists, which were named earlier this month.

Here's what each finalist walked away with this year:

First Place: Goldie

Goldie, founded by three Rice MBA students, won the first place — a $50,000 investment prize — as well as the Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations in Music, Fashion, & the Arts, which came with $2,500.

The company 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.

Second Place: Tierra Climate

Coming in second place — and securing a $25,000 prize, was Tierra Climate. The company 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

Third Place: Separion

Separion claimed third place and a $15,000 prize. The company is addressing battery storage with its 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

Audience Choice Award: Sygne Solutions

Sygne Solutions secured the $1,500 Audience Choice Award. The company 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

Outstanding Undergraduate Award: Tidepay

Tidepay won the Outstanding Undergraduate Award and $5,000. The company 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

Additional prizes:

The program also awarded two prizes to two organizations not previously listed as finalists by the program:

  • The Parent Teacher Collaborative, founded by Jessica Faith Carter MBA ‘24, a school and community based nonprofit that aims to improve student outcomes by building strong collaborative partnerships between parents and teachers, received the RISE@Rice: The Sen Social Pioneer Prize for $1,000.
  • RiseWorks, an AI-driven music therapy for mental health needs, secured the Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations in Music, Fashion, & the Arts for $2,500. The company was founded by Jucheng Shen BS ‘26, Lai Peng BS ‘24, Yuan Chen BS ‘25, and Kaiyuan Wu BS ‘23.
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

5 Rice University-founded startups named finalists ahead of annual pitch competition

student founders

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

These three startups walked away from a pitch competition with thousands of dollars in equity-free prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

3 alumni-founded startups claim cash prizes at Rice University pitch competition

winner, winner

Three startups founded by Rice University graduates have won investment prizes at an annual pitch competition.

The annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, or NRLC, welcomed a panel of judges to hear from six alumni-founded startups in the finals last week. The prizes on the line totaled $65,000 in equity-free funding. The event, which is separate from the student version of the competition, is hosted by Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The big winner of the 2022 competition was Rhythio Medical, a preventative heart arrhythmias treatment startup. The company won first place, which included $30,000 in equity-free funding, as well as the Audience Choice Award that came with $1,500.

Taking second place, Synopic, which facilitates faster and more accurate surgical procedures through improved endoscopic vision technology, won $20,000 in equity-free funding. Lastly, Green Room, a platform that streamlines taxes and payments for touring artists, clinched third place and $15,000.

The event, named for Rice professor emeritus and entrepreneurship program founder H. Albert Napier, was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions and Chevron Technology Ventures. This year's finalists were selected by judges made up of Rice alumni. Three judges — Danielle Conkling, director at Silicon Valley Bank, Paul Manwell, senior director at Google, and Joanna Nathan, manager of new ventures at Johnson & Johnson — listened to and evaluated each company's five-minute pitch and followed up with questions.

Rhythio Medical was founded by CEO Kunal Shah, class of 2022, and Savannah Esteve, who also serves as head of product. The technology includes a surgically injected wire that makes an irregular heart work like a healthy one. It works alongside a traditional implantable cardioverter defibrillator, however, the wire but works to prevent arrhythmias, while ICDs treat arrhythmias with a painful shock to the patient’s heart. The company lists the Texas Heart Institute and the University of Texas at Austin as its research partners.

Six Rice University student-led startups pitched and were awarded $75,000 in equity-free funding. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University student startup challenge names winning teams

winner, winner

Rice University's six student startup teams competed for thousands of dollars in investment prizes, and one company came out on top — but a few other companies walked away with fresh funding too.

The 2022 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge doled out $75,000 to student-founded companies at Rice last week. Helix Earth Technologies, which has developed a filter that helps limit water waste in power plants, and its founder, Rawand Rasheed, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Rice University, won first place ans $35,000. The company been testing its technology on the power plants on campus.

The second-place team was EpiFresh, which created a protein-based coating doubles the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables, won $25,000. Guildata, which provides global health organizations with data that shows the greatest return on investment, won third place and $10,000.

The competition also included three additional awards:

  • Guildata won the $1,000 RISE@Rice: The Sen Social Pioneer Prize
  • SkySpace won the $1,500 Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations
  • Aqualight Materials won the $2,500 Chevron Tech Ventures Climate Innovations Prize
  • Berman Foods, an artisanal plant-based cheese and spread provider, won the $1,500 Norman E. Leebron Audience Choice Award

This year's competition saw participation from almost 200 students and a record 84 teams. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship whittled those entries down for judges, which included Thomas Ball, co-founder and managing director at Next Coast Ventures; Lisa Besserman, managing director at Expa; and Xiaodi Zhang, chief product officer at 1stDibs. On April 20, six finalists pitched in the championship round in five-minute pitches followed by seven minutes of questions.

Additionally, all competitors received personalized mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and subject matter experts. The program started in 2017 with 15 student-run companies vying for a win. This year's NRLC was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions, and Chevron Technology Ventures.

These six finalists of The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge Championship will pitch on April 20. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University startup pitch competition names 6 finalists

pitch perfect

Six student-founded startups are headed to the finals of a Rice University pitch competition — and this round is where the money is on the line.

The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, open to undergraduate or graduate students in the spring as well as alumni in the summer, started in 2017 with 15 student-run companies vying for a win. The 2022 edition saw participation from almost 200 students and a record 84 teams. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship whittled those entries down and, after the first round of judging on March 24, six teams are headed the the finals.

The startups will make their pitches in-person at Rice University on Wednesday, April 20, starting at 5:30 pm and compete for over $75,000 in equity free funding.

These are the six student-led startups that will pitch at the finals are:

AutoEdge

AutoEdge is an artificial intelligence-powered quality assurance platform that assists small and medium manufacturers to quickly detect defects and provide clear actionable items to fix inefficiencies.

Founders:

  • Alfredo Costilla Reyes, Post-Doc – Computer Science, 2023, The DATA Lab led by Professor Ben Hu
  • Kwei-Herng Lai, M.S. – Computer Science
  • Daochen Zha, M.S. – Computer Science

Berman Foods

Berman Foods is a artisanal plant-based cheese and spread creator that uses nutritious ingredients.

Founder: Delaney Berman, MBA, 2022

​EpiFresh 

Another food-focused startup, ​EpiFresh is emphasizing fresher ingredients and less waste. Their healthy and sustainable protein-based coating doubles the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables, reducing waste by delaying decay as it moves from the farm to your fridge.

Founders:

  • Neethu Pottackal, PhD – Materials & Nanoengineering, 2024, Professor Pulickel Ajayan’s Lab
  • Aasha Zinke, Materials & Nano Engineering, 2024

​GradGenius

GradGenius is designed to provide users — those looking for a higher education opportunity — a one-stop-shop experience to selecting schools based on personal interests.

Founders:

  • David Akpakwu, MBA, 2023
  • Chinedum Peter Ezeakacha, MBA, 2023

Guildata

Guildata provides global health organizations with data that shows the greatest return on investment, by reduction in morbidity and mortality, for public health interventions in a non-disease centric approach.

Founders:

  • Stephanie Pons, MBA, 2022
  • Kurt Reece, MBA, 2022
  • Ryan Jensen, MBA, 2022

Helix Earth Technologies

Helix Earth Technologies is helping save our planet by helping power plant operators reduce their plant water use and subsequently reducing their overall operating costs.

Founder: Rawand Rasheed, PhD – Mechanical Engineering, 2023, Professor Daniel Preston’s Lab

The annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge awarded equity-free cash prizes to three impressive student startups. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University student startups win $65,000 in competition

winners revealed

A Rice University startup competition concluded with a big win for a company started by students trying to use tech to help prevent veteran suicide.

The startup, rutd: resources united. technology driven., a secure platform that can deliver more than 14,000 mental health resources to veterans, won first prize at the virtually held H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge last week. The prize included a $27,500 check.

Seven other Rice-affiliated startups pitched for judges at the event for a shot at equity-free seed funding. The program is a part of Rice's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or Lilie.

"With the biggest and most diverse field of competitors in the history of the competition, it shows that at Rice and Lilie, you don't have to choose between being a student and working on your startup. We empower you to do both," says Kyle Judah, executive director of Lilie, in a press release. "These founders took advantage of all our resources and opportunities — which is why they had million-dollar partnerships and tens of thousands of users at competition time."

Second place went to Green Room, a startup that aims to provide tools — like payments and tax compliance — for Houstonians in the live music industry. The Green Room team won $20,000.

In third place was A440, a company focused on "bringing the creator economy to classical music, helping a centuries-old art form find new life in the modern era," according to the release. A440 won the $15,000 third place prize, as well as the $2,500 Norman Dresden Leebron Audience Choice Award.

The competition, which was sponsored by was sponsored by Mercury Fund and T-Minus Solutions and supported by the Napier family and the Liu Family Foundation, also provided mentoring and pitch coaching opportunities from experts and the Rice community.

The judges included Rice alumni Claire Shorall, CEO and co-founder of Topknot; Sunit Patel, CFO of Ibotta; Monica Pal, founding partner of How Women Invest; Chris Staffel, managing director of GOOSE Capital; and Brad Husick, CEO and founder of IdeaSense.

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.