This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Peter Rodriguez of Rice University, Kike Oduba of WellnessWits, and Phil Sitter of RepeatMD. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries recently making headlines in Houston across business, software, and digital health.

Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business

Peter Rodriguez joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the school's growth and development as an innovation leader. Photo courtesy Annie Tao/Rice University

Entrepreneurship doesn't require a MBA from Rice University, but Dean Peter Rodriguez wants to make sure that the students who do pass through the halls of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business are well prepared for creating a successful company.

"We really want to be the deliverer of the software in people's brain of how to launch great companies and to be trumpeting the opportunities here," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rodriguez joined the school as dean in 2016, and since then he's doubled MBA enrollment, grown the tenure-track faculty by over 40 percent, launched an online graduate degree, created an undergraduate business major, and more.

"When I came here, I thought Rice had the best strategic foundation of any university for a great business school — and a lot of that is being really closely connected to Houston and bringing in innovation," he says on the show. Read more.

Kike Oduba, founder and CEO of WellnessWits

WellnessWits, founded by Kike Oduba to enhance patient-physician interaction, has integrated AI with the help of IBM. Photo via WellnessWits.com

A Houston startup aimed at transforming healthcare with solutions for chronic disease and its prevention has teamed up with IBM technology.

WellnessWits has embedded IBM watsonx Assistant into its app for both iOS and Android. By making generative AI part of the app, WellnessWits now boasts an AI-based chat functionality.

That cutting-edge aspect of the platform allows patients to get information on chronic disease more quickly than ever, even before meeting with their physician. But it helps with that, too, aiding in scheduling appointments more easily with doctors who specialize in a host of chronic maladies.

“I founded WellnessWits as a platform for shared medical appointments where doctors with large patient loads can see them in groups and offer collective shared medical experiences to people suffering from chronic conditions. The goal is to bridge this divide, leveraging the strength of digital communities to enhance the overall well-being and healthcare experiences of individuals everywhere,” WellnessWits Founder and CEO Dr. Kike Oduba, a physician and informatician, writes in a blog post. Read more.

Phil Sitter, founder and CEO of RepeatMD

Fresh off a win at the Houston Innovation Awards, Phil Sitter's RepeatMD has raised funding. Photo via RepeatMD

Just nine months after its seed round, a Houston startup with a software platform for the aesthetic and wellness industry has secured $40 million in venture capital and $10 million in debt facility.

RepeatMD, a SaaS platform, announced today that it's secured $50 million, which includes a $10 million debt facility from Silicon Valley Bank. The round was co-led by Centana Growth Partners and Full In Partners with participation from PROOF and Mercury Fund, which also contributed to the seed round earlier this year.

The mobile ecommerce platform, launched in October 2021 by Phil Sitter, targets practices within the med spa and aesthetics industry. In the United States, the med spa market is slated to hit $19 billion in 2023, according to the company's press release, while the global aesthetics market is forecasted to reach to nearly $332 billion by 2030.

“Even though the aesthetics and wellness industry has continued to innovate a growing range of life-changing treatments, practices continue to face challenges selling treatments and services that are new and unfamiliar to patients,” Sitter, CEO of RepeatMD, says in the release. “Our goal at RepeatMD is to give these practice owners the technology to elevate their patients’ experience. Our platform serves as a med-commerce engine equipped with the same firepower as large retailers to convert sales inside and outside of practice operating hours.” Read more.

Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the school's growth and development as an innovation leader. Photo courtesy Annie Tao/Rice University

Rice University business dean on expanding to continue supporting Houston innovators

houston innovators podcast episode 214

Entrepreneurship doesn't require a MBA from Rice University, but Dean Peter Rodriguez wants to make sure that the students who do pass through the halls of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business are well prepared for creating a successful company.

"We really want to be the deliverer of the software in people's brain of how to launch great companies and to be trumpeting the opportunities here," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rodriguez joined the school as dean in 2016, and since then he's doubled MBA enrollment, grown the tenure-track faculty by over 40 percent, launched an online graduate degree, created an undergraduate business major, and more.

"When I came here, I thought Rice had the best strategic foundation of any university for a great business school — and a lot of that is being really closely connected to Houston and bringing in innovation," he says on the show.



And he's got more in the works, even including expansion plans for the school's physical space next to the recently renovated McNair Hall. He says the school is currently working on a 110,000-square-foot building adjacent to McNair.

"It's largely going to house our undergraduate programming, some of the MBA programming, and create a lot more space for all the things we've done in the past six or several years," Rodriguez says. "It's always a bit of a battle keeping up with investment needs and making students ready for the world."

Rodriguez calls out some of the ways Rice has increased its connection to Houston's business and innovation community, including opening the Ion, introducing innovative programs to take innovation on campus to commercialization, and more.

"We have to be hyper connected to everything going on in the city to do our job well," he says.

One of the recent way the school has connect its student body to the Houston business community is through its recent Rice Energy Finance Summit, which took place earlier this month. The student-led program has been ongoing for 15 years and gives students a chance to work with business leaders in the energy sector.

"One of the five pillars of our strategy is to be the leading business school of the country for the studying and advancement of the energy transition and decarbonization of the economy," he says. "We think that we can be the premiere school for training people in the rapidly evolving field of energy."

A new MBA program at Rice University will allow for students to get the the convenience of online instruction with monthly on-campus engagement. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University rolls out hybrid MBA track

back to school

Rice University is making it easier to get an MBA. The Houston university has launched a new hybrid program.

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business will launch a new Hybrid MBA program this summer. According to Rice, it's the first of its kind in Texas. The program "preserves the benefits of the in-person educational experience while leveraging the flexibility offered by online learning through live Zoom sessions and asynchronous course content," the university explains in a news release.

"After researching demand for MBA programs, we found that prospective students want an in-person experience but not one that meets every week," says Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, in the release. "Our Hybrid MBA makes it easier for working professionals in Houston and regionally to earn a Rice MBA with the on-campus experience they want.”

The new track is 22 months and has a 54-credit requirement that will feature the same faculty within the existing program. In-person class will be once a month, and online education will be conducted in the weeks between. According to Rice, tuition — listed online as $67,500 — includes the cost of a hotel stay close to Rice during on-campus weekends and immersion weeks. This provides students an opportunity to connect with classmates and avoid a commute.

The first class of the Hybrid MBA Program begins in July with a one-week immersion on campus. There will be one immersion week at the end of the first year, and the program concludes with a one-week Global Field Experience in May 2025 before students return to campus for graduation, according to Rice.

Rice University's annual global student startup competition named the startups that will compete for over $1 million in investment prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice Business Plan Competition names 2021 startups to compete for over $1M in prizes

challenge accepted

After receiving applications from over 440 startups from around the world, the Rice Business Plan Competition has named 54 startups to compete in the 2021 event.

Touted as the world's largest and richest student startup competition, RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, takes place April 6 to 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC will be virtually held.

"In the midst of a chaotic year, I'm excited to bring good news to deserving startups," says Peter Rodriguez, dean of the Jones Graduate School of Business, in a video announcement. "For the second year now, we'll bring this competition to you virtually, and while we'll miss welcoming you to Houston, we see this as an opportunity to lower the participation barrier for startups."

Per usual, the competition will be made up of elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants will also receive virtual networking and mentoring.

"The virtual competition will still bring with it the mentorship, guidance, and, of course, the sought after more than $1 million in prizes, including $350,000 investment grand prize from Goose Capital," Rodriguez says in the video.

Over the past 20 years, the competition has seen over 700 startups go on to raise $2.675 billion in funding. The 2021 class — listed below — joins those ranks.

The 2021 RBPC startups include:

  • Candelytics, Harvard University
  • Paldara Inc., Oklahoma State University
  • Bruxaway Inc., University of Texas
  • Smoove Creations, Northern Kentucky University
  • Flowaste Inc., University of Notre Dame
  • Polair, Johns Hopkins University
  • Kit Switch, Standard University
  • Kegstand, Colorado University at Boulder
  • Bullyproof, University of Arkansas
  • AI Pow, Texas A&M University
  • Solbots Technologies, BITS Pilani
  • Lelantos Inc., Columbia University
  • Early Intervention Systems, George Washington University
  • Phenologic, Michigan State University
  • AI-Ris, Texa A&M University
  • Lira Inc., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Shelly XU Design (SXD), Harvard University
  • Transform LLC, University of Virginia
  • Almond Finance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Aspire360, Columbia University
  • Mindtrace, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Renew Innovations, Chulalongkorn University
  • MentumQR, University of Western Ontario
  • Hubly Surgical, Johns Hopkins University
  • FibreCoat GmbH, RWTH Aachen University
  • LFAnt Medical, McGill University
  • GABA, Morehouse School of Medicine
  • EasyFlo, University of New Mexico
  • SwiftSku, Auburn University
  • Floe, Yale University
  • blip energy, Northwestern University
  • Cerobex Drug Delivery Technologies, Tufts University
  • M Aerospace RTC, CETYS University
  • NASADYA, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
  • Flux Hybrids, NC State University
  • ANIMA IRIS, University of Pennsylvania
  • Big & Mini, University of Texas at Austin
  • OYA, UCLA
  • ArchGuard, Duke University
  • Padma Agrobotics, Arizona State University
  • VRapeutic, University of Ottawa
  • SEAAV Athletics, Quinnipiac University
  • Adatto Market, UCLA
  • Karkinex, Rice University
  • AgZen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Blue Comet Medical Solutions, Northwestern University
  • Land Maverick, Fairfield University
  • Anthro Energy, Stanford University
  • ShuffleMe, Indiana University Bloomington
  • ElevateU, Arizona State University
  • QBuddy, Cornell University
  • SimpL, University of Pittsburgh
  • Ichosia Biotechnology, George Washington University
  • Neurava, Purdue University
Rice University and the University of Houston top lists for best graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship programs. Photo by skynesher/Getty Images

2 Houston universities top list for best graduate, undergraduate entrepreneurship programs

Best of the rest

In Houston, a little bit of friendly competition between two universities goes a long way, but each gets a win according to a recent ranking.

The University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship within the C. T. Bauer College of Business claimed the top spot on the 2020 Princeton Review's top 15 programs for undergraduate entrepreneurship studies. Meanwhile, Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business claimed the top spot on the graduate schools list.

Both schools have appeared on the list before, but it's the first time either has topped their categories.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez, in a news release. "Today's ranking and our decades-long leadership in entrepreneurship education and outreach is a testament to our visionary and world-class faculty, the enormous success of the Rice Business Plan Competition and of our commitment to our students and the community we serve."

The Rice program, which in 1978, has appeared on the top-10 list for 11 years in a row, and it's the fourth time for the program to make it into the top three. According to the Princeton Review release, Rice grads have started 537 companies that went on to raise over $7 billion in funding.

A UH news release also calls out the fact that UH has seen more than 1,200 alumni-founded businesses, which have amassed over $268 million in funding over the past decade. UH's program, which began in 1991, has appeared in the top 10 list since 2007, and rose from the No. 2 position last year.

"The Wolff Center is the catalyst, but entrepreneurship goes beyond that to the entire Bauer College, including RED Labs, social entrepreneurship, energy, health care, arts and sports entrepreneurship, among many other programs," says Bauer Dean Paul Pavlou. "We're an entrepreneurial university, and innovation and the startup ecosystem we want to promote for the city of Houston starts with the Wolff Center and Bauer."

The ranking considered more than 300 schools with entrepreneurship studies programs and factored in over 40 data points. Some of the factors considered include: the percentage of students enrolled in entrepreneurship courses, mentorship programs, the number of startups founded and investments received by alumni, and the cash prizes at university-backed business plan competitions. The rankings will be published in the December issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.

------

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.