The winners of the hackathon included a contact tracing tool for schools, a soap dispenser to promote handwashing, a virus-killing filter, and more. Photo via Rice University Public Relations

As fall creeps closer, the need for a safe way to reopen schools becomes more and more dire. A team of Rice University students created a software that might help on that front.

SchoolTrace, a software that uses the schedules of students and faculty for COVID-19 contact tracing in schools, won top honors in the 2020 Rice Design-A-Thon, which took place July 17 to 19 online this year due to the pandemic. The hackathon was planned to be held in person during the fall semester, but organizers moved up the date to focus on coronavirus solutions. Twenty-three teams — comprised of 116 undergraduate competitors — participated.

"We wanted to provide students with a meaningful summer opportunity and the potential for a significant public health impact," says Carrigan Hudgins, a Sid Richardson College senior and co-coordinator, in a news release. "At one point, we considered cancelling, but hosting it virtually instead actually allowed us to reach a broader base of students across Texas and out of state."

SchoolTrace and its contact tracing tech that doesn't raise privacy concerns with tracking sensors or mobile phone apps took the $1,000 first price. Justin Cheung, Nick Glaze, Mit Mehta, Tyler Montague and Huzaifah Shamim — all juniors majoring in electrical and computer engineering — also received $500 for excelling in the digital age of health care track.

The teams that came in second and third place received $800 and $600, respectively, and the winners of each of the three design tracks also scored $500. The prizes were sponsored by Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering, Rice's student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium.

Aside from the cash prizes, the students also received valuable guidances and feedback from industry experts.

"Having the judges and our team vouch for the actual solution, when we can propose it to different competitions and incubators around Texas and the country, is more important than the cash prizes," says co-coordinator Franklin Briones, a Brown College senior who competed in previous design-a-thons at Rice. Briones and Hudgins co-coordinated this year's event with Wiess College senior Eric Torres.

Here were the other award-winning innovations to come out of the program:

  • Second place and pediatric track winner — "Team SARS Wars: A New Hope." The team created a soap dispenser attachment that plays music and rewards children with stickers if they wash their hands for 20 seconds. Team members included: Anyssa Castorina, Aman Eujayl, Diego Lopez-Bernal, Janet Lu, Rubén Sebastián Marroquín, and Belén Szentes, all sophomores from Rice.
  • Third place — "The (d^3x/dt^3)(s)." COV-COM is a wall-mounted filtration system that catches and kills COVID-19 created by a team of juniors and seniors from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Team members included: Olivia Garza, Juan Herrera, Frida Montoya, Aishwarya Sathish, Samantha Strahan, and Morgan Struthers.
  • Global health track winner — "The Duncaroo Designers." The team from Rice created affordable desk partitions that could be used in schools with limited funds. Team members included: senior Rachel Bui and sophomores Jacob Duplantis, Charlie Gorton, Andrei Mitrofan, Anh Nguyen, and Vivian Wong.

Each of the teams were tasked Friday (July 17) evening with the prompt to "design and present a solution (either a product or a method) to address the treatment, prevention or non-medical related needs of the COVID-19 pandemic." Final presentations took place final presentations Sunday afternoon.

"The needs-finding for those problems was the most cumbersome part," Briones says in the release. "Not because it's hard to find problems, but because COVID-19 is so continually changing. It was hard to find which problem was the most important one."

Houston's seen the effect on climate change. Now, Impact Hub Houston is putting together a brainstorming event to find sustainable solutions. Getty Images

Houston organization to host a hackathon to find sustainable solutions to climate change

It's not easy being green

Houstonians are teaming up to put on a hackathon that will gather designers, developers, entrepreneurs, students, policymakers, and more to find sustainable solutions to climate change.

Impact Hub Houston is organizing Houston's fist Climathon for October 25. The local nonprofit is teaming up with global organizer EIT Climate-KIC, the City of Houston, Citizens' Environmental Coalition, Sketch City, January Advisors, Bunker Labs, WeWork Labs, Syzygy Plasmonics, and GoodFair.

"During Hurricane Harvey, we saw Houston's talent rise to these challenges and develop solutions that not only helped rescue, feed and shelter local Houstonians, but went on to help people in Florida and Puerto Rico," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "We're excited to join the global Climathon challenge in order to give Houston's changemakers a platform to develop sustainable air, water, energy, etc., solutions and take them to the next level. In such a diverse city with so many resources, it seems only natural that Houston can help lead the way in developing local solutions that can scale to other contexts."

The city of Houston has seen its fair share of extreme weather as a result of climate change. The Energy Capital of the World among the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and mayor's office recently-announced Climate Action Plan to address the concerns of climate change.

"Houston has a lot to lose as the weather changes," says Jeff Reichman, founder of January Advisors and Sketch City, in the release. "We should be using our talents to elevate good ideas for our region, and to connect with one another for long-term collaborations."

The event will zero in on Houston's biggest emissions problems: transportation and commercial and residential buildings. The best ideas coming out of the Climathon will be sent to the international database for consideration for the global awards in Paris.

For more information and to register, view partnership opportunities, or sign up to volunteer, visit the website.

TMCx is looking for members for its ninth cohort. Courtesy of TMCx

Houston software company raises $16.3 million, TMCx opens applications, and more innovation news

Short stories

From rounds closing to accelerator applications opening, there's a lot of Houston innovation news that might not have reached your radar. Here's a roundup of short stories within tech and innovation in the Bayou City.

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Houston software company closes a $16.3 million Series A

Industrial software

Innovapptive raised its round lead by a New York-based firm. Getty Images

Innovapptive, a software-as-a-service company with clients in industrial industries, announced it closed on a $16.3 million Series A investment led by New york-based Tiger Global Management LLC. The company will use the funds for continued global growth. As of the raise's completion, company's valuation is now more than $65 million.

"We are connecting the enterprise by providing a platform that improves real-time data collaboration and communications between the field and back office. The communications and collaboration data are captured and converted into executive insights for continuous workforce optimization," says Sundeep Ravande, CEO and co-founder of Innovapptive, in a press release. "This additional capital will allow us to accelerate our strategy and development to transform the digital experience of the industrial worker to help increase revenues and margins for our customers."

TMCx opens its medical device cohort applications

The deadline to apply for the next TMCx cohort is May 24. Courtesy of TMC

The Texas Medical Center has announced that TMCx's 2019 medical device cohort applications are now open. The deadline to apply is May 24, and selected companies will be notified by June 21. The program will run from August 5 to November 8th. For more information, click here.

Nesh closes Seed round of funding

Aristos Ventures lead the round for the Houston energy startup. Courtesy of Nesh

The Siri of oil and gas, Hello Nesh Inc, has raised its first round of funding thanks to seed funding from Aristos Ventures and a LOOP contract with Equinor Technology Ventures. The funding will be used for new hires and expansion plans.

"Securing LOOP funding from ETV and seed funding from Aristos provides us with a unique mix of strategic knowledge and domain expertise, coupled with investment experience in digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and SaaS," says co-founder and CEO of Nesh, Sidd Gupta in a release. "This will enable us to further build Nesh's petrotechnical and natural language understanding and scale our business in the North America market."

ETV has chosen not to disclose the dollar amount of the round, however last fall Gupta at the Texas Digital Summit, Gupta announced that the company was seeking to close a $800,000 seed round. Read more about the company here.

Shell Oil Co. gives $2.5M to fund research, inform public policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute

Shell and Rice University have entered a partnership. Courtesy of Rice University

Following a $2.5 million commitment from Shell Oil Co., the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy has announced five-year research program to study the global energy system — including the policies, regulations, geopolitical forces, market developments and technologies.

"We are grateful for Shell's commitment to advancing the study of critical energy issues affecting our region, the nation and the world," says Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian in a release. "This partnership with Shell furthers our mission to provide unbiased, data-driven analysis of factors that will shape our energy future with the aim of engaging policymakers, corporate leaders and the general public with the results."

Texas improves its ranking as an innovative state

The Lone Star State is moving on up as an innovative state. Getty Images

Texas is slowly but surely moving on up as an innovative state. According to Bloomberg's newest U.S. State Innovation Index, Texas is the 17th best state for innovation. The study factors in six metrics: research and development intensity, productivity, clusters of companies in technology, "STEM" jobs, populous with degrees in science and engineering disciplines, and patent activity. Last year, the study found Texas at the No. 19 spot.

Texas' score was 60.1 — which is just over a point's difference from being in the top 15. It's also worth noting that the Lone Star State is the highest ranked in the south.

"What is most important is the construction and catalyzation of super vibrant advanced industry sectors and clusters in a state," says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings, a think tank in Washington DC, to Bloomberg. "Commercialization has not been a top priority of universities in the heartland, especially in the South."

Houston companies take home Napier Rice Launch Challenge prizes

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, won the award for the Best Alumni team at the H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge at Rice University. Courtesy of Work & Mother

On April 4, 10 teams competed in the H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge at Rice University. Here are the Rice University alumni- and student-led companies that won awards.

  • LilySpec took home $2,500 as the Audience Favorite award winner.
  • CardStock Exchange won $12,500 in the Best Undergraduate category.
  • WellWorth walked away with $12,500 as the Best Graduate team winner.
  • Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother, took home first place the Best Alumni category — along with $12,500.
  • UrinControl was the Grand Prize winner and scored $20,000.

BBL reverse pitch contest extends deadline

The deadline for a new pitch competition with ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures has been extended. Getty Images

BBL Ventures, which announced its reverse pitch competition with ExxonMobil earlier this year, has extended the challenge deadline to May 13.

"BBL Ventures is excited to be working with a forward-thinking partner like ExxonMobil, engaging the external innovation ecosystem is a key step in advancing the energy industry's continued success," says Patrick Lewis, managing partner of BBL Ventures, in a release. Full details for the competition are available here.

Startup Grind Houston is calling all female founders

pitch

Calling all female founders. Getty Images

Houston's Startup Grind chapter announced a female founder pitch event on May 2 at the TMC Innovation Institute. The organization is calling for teams to pitch at the event. The deadline to apply is April 23 at 5 pm.

Click here to nominate yourself or someone else for the pitch.

Sysco invites UH tech students to first-ever UHacks Hackathon competition

Sysco and AWS are teaming up for a hackathon. Getty Images

Houston-based Sysco Corp. — along with Amazon Web Services — is hosting its first-ever, university student-led hackathon event. The one-day competition takes place on Friday, April 19, from 8 am to 5 pm at the new Houston office of AWS ( 825 Town & Country Lane, 10th floor).

The student teams with focus on four hypothetical themes in Sysco's business landscape, including a spend management platform enhancing the customer shopping experience, identifying locally grown foods, proof of purchase technology, and a "best before" portal to streamline expiration data.

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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.