This year, Rice University's NRLC started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. Photo courtesy of Rice

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

The rest of the winners included:

  • Second place and $25,000: CoFlux Purification
  • Third place and $15,000: Bonfire
  • Outstanding Achievement in Social Impact Award and $1,500: EmpowerU
  • Outstanding Achievement in Artificial Intelligence and $1,000: Sups and Levytation
  • Outstanding Achievement in Consumer Goods Prize and $1,000: The Blind Bag
  • Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations in Music, Fashion and the Arts and $1,500: Melody
  • Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes and $1,000: Solidec and HEXASpec
  • Outstanding Undergraduate Startup Award and $2,500: Women’s Wave
  • Audience Choice Award and $2,000: CoFlux Purification

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

HEXASpec was founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program. Photo courtesy of Rice

The $2.5 million in NSF funding will allow Rice to increase the number of students in the Rice Emerging Scholars Program. Photo via rice.edu

Houston university lands $2.5M grant to expand STEM scholarship program for underserved communities

evolving inclusivity

Rice University will expand its Rice Emerging Scholars Program (RESP) over the next two years thanks to a recent grant from the National Science Foundation.

The $2.5 million in NSF funding will allow Rice to increase the number of scholars the RESP offers from 40 to 50 students this summer and to 60 students in 2025. The program works to address disparities among first-year students and to "assist students in adapting to the challenging pace, depth and rigor of the STEM curricula at Rice" through a six-week summer bridge program and ongoing mentorship, according to a statement from the university. Summer tuition scholarships, housing subsidies and research stipends are also provided.

Rice estimates that roughly 20 percent of its undergraduate population comes from families with limited financial resources, and 12 percent of students are the first in their families to attend college.

“Low-income students, especially those who are first-generation, face unique obstructions to pursuing college STEM degrees,” said Senior associate provost Matthew Taylor, a co-principal investigator on the grant. “RESP and Rice University are committed to eliminating these obstructions and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to thrive and achieve their academic and professional aspirations.”

Taylor created the program with Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Mike Wolf in 2012. It has since worked with more than 400 RESP scholars, according to the program's website. Most (about 79 percent) graduate with STEM degrees and an overwhelming 90 percent of RESP scholars graduate in four years, according to recent data.

“Rice recognizes the challenges faced by students from low-income backgrounds,” Angel Martí, chair and professor of chemistry, faculty director of RESP and principal investigator of the grant, said in a statement. “RESP aims to empower these students to achieve their academic and professional aspirations as future scientists and engineers.”

Earlier this year, the NSF also awarded Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel $670,406 through its highly competitive CAREER Awards to continue her research in designing branch elastomers.

Marciel was also named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows through the university's Office of Innovation and The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (or Lilie). The group includes 10 Ph.D. and postdoctoral students who aim to translate research into real-world startups.
Four Rice University lab-stage innovations are receiving fresh funding to get them closer to commercialization. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice names inaugural recipients of new grant program that's doling out $360,000

Four Houston research projects are splitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding from Rice University.

After announcing the One Small Step Grant program in September to support Rice-developed, lab-stage innovations, the university has named its inaugural recipients. After receiving nearly 30 applicants, four research projects were selected to share $360,000 in grant funding.

“Being able to fund near-commercial projects represents a leap forward in our mission of supporting the cutting-edge work of our faculty and students and helping bring those to market,” Adrian Trömel, assistant vice president for strategy and investments, says in a news release. “Feedback from industry and investors show that they’re excited on how the One Small Step grants help derisk these technologies, getting them ready to launch. Watch this space for the next generation of leading deeptech companies.”

The selected projects include:

  • PerisBio, developed by Samira Aglhara Fotovat and Samantha Fleury from Rice Professor Omid Veiseh's Lab, focuses on novel, hydrogel-encapsulated engineered "cell factories" for the minimally invasive treatment of endometriosis. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • Solidec, founded by Ryan Duchanois and Yang Xia from Rice Professor Haotian Wang's Lab, is a room temperature, solid-state direct air capture technology. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • HornetX, led by Rice Professor Aditya Mohite's Lab, aims to produce highly stable green hydrogen using a perovskite-based photoelectrochemical cell with leading efficiency. The project received a $80,000 award.
  • Coflux, developed by Jeremy Daum and Alec Ajnsztajn from the labs of Rice Professors Rafael Verduzco and Pulickel Ajayan, focuses on covalent organic framework-based photocatalysts for instream remediation of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from water. The project received a $80,000 award.

The Office of Innovation created an investment advisory committee — made up of entrepreneurs, investors and corporate executives across industries — to select these recipients. The grant program was funded by the Office of Innovation, with support from Breakthrough Energy Fellows for climate and energy projects

“The inaugural winners of the One Small Step Grant represent the innovative spirit and dedication to excellence that defines our students and faculty," Rice Chief Innovation Officer Paul Cherukuri says. "We are proud to support these groundbreaking projects on their journey from lab to market."

Rice University is in the process of restructuring operations at the Ion. Photo courtesy of the Ion

Houston innovation hub restructures, pulls in more Rice resources

cha-cha-changes

Rice University is leaning in on the Ion by restructuring the innovation hub's team and increasing the university's presence at the hub.

Paul Cherukuri, vice president for innovation, tells InnovationMap that the changes being made at the Ion — Rice's Midtown innovation hub — are a reflection of Rice President Reginald DesRoches's vision for the hub and for the university as a leader of innovation.

"We're embracing the community even further by what we've done with this restructuring," Cherukuri says. "The restructuring is really a result of Reggie's vision of us wanting to move forward with helping the community to grow innovation across Houston, throughout Texas, if not the world."

He adds that the university is "putting resources from Rice Alliance and amping up what's happening at the Ion."

Earlier this month, Rice announced that Brad Burke, executive director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has been named associate vice president for industry and new ventures reporting to Cherukuri's Office of Innovation.

Cherukuri confirms that the Rice Alliance will take over programming at the Ion, and that he too will have an increased presence at the hub. The restructuring includes elimination of positions at the Ion; however, Rice declined to comment on matters of personnel.

"We have members of the Ion staff who are going to be integrated to the Rice Alliance," Cherukuri says. "The direction of this is really so that we can no longer stay behind the hedges and do more for the Houston community."

Cherukuri says the university has already made a concerted effort on this, and soon will deliver on the Rice Nexus, a hub within the Ion for showcasing and connecting Rice innovation. Additionally, Rice announced last month that it's partnering with Woodside Energy, which committed $12.5 million over the next five years to create the Woodside Rice Decarbonization Accelerator.

Last year, Cherukuri joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to expound upon his vision for the Ion in his role as the inaugural vice president for innovation, which he was named to in 2022.


For the third year, Rice University has tapped 10 Rice Innovation Fellows working in engineering and materials science fields to support. Photo via rice.edu

10 Houston scientists named to fellowship for turning research into businesses

top of class

Rice University has announced its latest cohort of fellows who aim to translate research into real-world startups.

The 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows is the third of its kind since the university's Office of Innovation and The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (or Lilie) launched the program in 2022. The group includes 10 Ph.D. and postdoctoral students working in engineering and materials science fields.

The program provides personalized mentorship and up to $20,000 equity-free funding.

According to Lilie, the 10 members of the 2024 cohort are:

  • Barclay Jumet, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of mechanical engineering, working under Dan Preston and specializing in mechanics, thermal systems and wearable technologies. InnovationMap covered his recent technology here.
  • Tianshu Zhai, a Ph.D. student studying materials science specializing in hexagonal boron nitride-based thermal interface materials
  • Zachary Kingston, a postdoctoral research associate and lab manager for the Kavraki Lab in the Computer Science department at Rice, working under the direction of Dr. Lydia Kavraki, a pioneer in the field of robot motion planning. Kingston is developing a novel approach to high-performance, low-cost robot motion planning with Wil Thomason.
  • Soobin Cho, a Ph.D. student and co-founder of Duromem, which created the Dual-Role Electrically Conductive Membrane to improve existing water treatment systems
  • Sara Abouelniaj, a Ph.D. candidate in Material Science and Nanoengineering and founder of Graphene Grids LLC, which is exploring opportunities to diversify its range of grid types services offered
  • Alisha Menon, is founding a medical device startup that's developing wireless, AI-enabled patient monitoring devices for babies in the NICU. Her work is being done in collaboration with the Texas Medical Center and Rice, with support from NSF and the Southwest Pediatric Device Consortium.
  • Wil Thomason, a CRA Computing Innovation postdoctoral fellow in the Kavraki Lab at Rice University who is developing low-cost robot motion planning with Kingston
  • Jeremy Daum, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice in the Materials Science department working on a a novel production method to create photocatalysts
  • Jonathan Montes, a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering focused on combating neurodegenerative diseases with highly selective neuromodulation
  • Andrew (AJ) Walters, a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering working in the labs of Dr. Caleb Bashor (Rice) and Dr. Scott Olson (UTHealth Houston McGovern Medical School) who's building an accessible allogeneic cell therapy to treat inflammation disorders and potentially cancer. He was awarded a three-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in 2022.

Over the last three years, Innovation Fellows have brought in more than $6 million in funding for their ventures, according to Rice.

Last year, the cohort of 10 included doctoral and postdoctoral students working in fields from bioengineering and chemistry to civil and environmental engineering.

Late last year, Lilie also announced its new entrepreneurship council known as Lilie’s Leadership Council. The group is made up of 11 successful business leaders with ties to Houston from the likes of co-founder Frank Liu to former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and several other CEOs and board members of successful companies. The council members agreed to donate time and money to the university’s entrepreneurship programs.

Rice University has launched the One Small Step Grant program and has plans to establish the One Giant Leap VC fund. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University launches research innovation grant program with VC fund in the works

coming soon

Over 60 years ago at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy recommitted the country to the Space Race. Now, decades later, the university is announcing its commitment to moonshot innovators.

Rice University's Office of Innovation established the One Small Step Grant — named for Neil Armstrong's first words spoken from Tranquility Base just several years after JFK's speech at Rice — last month. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

The grant initiative will provide as many as five awards a year, each with funding of up to $100,000. Applications, which are open now, are accepted on a rolling basis, and the university's Rice Investment Committee will review submissions on a quarterly basis.

"The One Small Step Grant is a beacon of hope by providing support to enable critical experiments that pave the way for groundbreaking startups or licensing breakthrough tech," reads the website. "We seek projects within 12-18 months of forming a spin-out or embarking on a licensing event."

Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University, shared the news of the grant program at an August 28 panel for the opening of Houston Methodist's Tech Hub at the Ion.

He says the initiative comes out of the need to financially support faculty-led, research-focused projects and to incentivize these faculty members to take their innovative ideas and commercialize them. Since he took on his role at Rice a year ago, he's observed the need for this type of funding.

"As soon as we announced this, in the same day, we had five professors fill out the form," Cherukuri says about the One Small Step Grant program.

The initiative has two parts to it, with the new grant program being the first to deliver. Next will be the One Giant Leap Fund, which Rice has not yet revealed details on.

Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University, shared details about the new program at a recent event at the Ion. Photo via Rice.edu

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

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.