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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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.