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.
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

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.

Need more news rounded up for you? Subscribe to our daily newsletterthat sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.