The new building, which will be integrated with McNair Hall at Rice University, will deliver in 2026. Rendering via Rice.edu

Rice University broke ground last week on an innovative $54.5 million building for the Jones Graduate School of Business that is designed to be built around the current structure and also integrate with McNair Hall.

The 112,000-square-foot building aims to support Rice Business as it continues to grow while centralizing the university's new undergraduate business education and entrepreneurship programs. It's slated to be completed by spring 2026.

“We are energized by the momentum of our innovative new programs, the addition of new faculty and students and a fresh outlook on the future,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of the Jones Graduate School of Business, says in a statement. “Our commitment is to attract more talented and innovative students, faculty and staff to Rice, who will further improve our programs and research capabilities. This wonderful new facility is critical to fulfilling that commitment.”

The 112,000-square-foot building broke ground last week. Photo via Rice.edu

The building will feature two 120-seat classrooms, two 65-seat classrooms and breakout rooms as well as a dining area on the first floor.

It will reflect Rice's traditional brick facade while enclosing the Woodson Courtyard to create a large atrium. A new triple-heigh pathway called The Walk will connect the area to Rice's new West Commons.

Rodriguez previously shared about his vision for expanding Rice Business on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rice's Architecture Research Office is leading the design of the project. Houston-based Kirksey Architecture serves as the project’s executive architect.

The university is seeking to fundraise $40 million for the project. According to Rice, the university's business programs saw a 50 percent increase in students and a 41 percent increase in faculty to support new programs in the last 10 years.

Rice launched its undergraduate business program in 2021. According to the fundraising website for the building, Rice Business has seen a 79 increase in enrollment and business became the second most popular major for first-year students, after computer science, since the program began .

Rice's Architecture Research Office is leading the design of the project. Houston-based Kirksey Architecture serves as the project’s executive architect. Rendering via Rice.edu

“This remarkable new building embodies the evolution of Rice Business over the past five decades and its commitment to equipping graduates who are not only integral to organizations around the globe but are also poised to lead them,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches says in a statement. “We’re committed to offering top-tier facilities that complement our top-ranked academic programs, attracting the best students, faculty and staff to our campus.”

At the start of the academic year, Rice also opened The Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science, its largest core campus research facility. The 250,000-square-foot building is the new home for four key research areas at Rice: advanced materials, quantum science and computing, urban research and innovation, and the energy transition.In October, Rice and Houston Methodist teamed up to open the new Center for Human Performance.

deleteSneak Peek: The New Rice Business Buildingwww.youtube.com

The project was part of a year-long senior design capstone by six students, known as Team Bay-Max, in Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Houston students develop underwater robot with energy-efficient buoyancy control

new tech

A team of Rice University engineering students has developed a new way for underwater robots to move around, save power and work more efficiently and quietly.

The robot uses reversible hydrogen fuel cell-based buoyancy control devices that convert water into hydrogen and oxygen (and the reverse) using electricity. Traditional underwater robots use thrusters or large pumps and propellers to change and hold depth, which can be heavy, have higher costs and use more energy. The use of reversible hydrogen fuel cells with balloons, allows the new robot to smoothly adjust its depth with less energy usage, according to a statement from Rice.

The project was part of a year-long senior design capstone by six students, known as Team Bay-Max, in Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

The students—Andrew Bare, Spencer Darwall, Noah Elzner, Rafe Neathery, Ethan Peck and Dan Zislis— won second place in the Willy Revolution Award for Outstanding Innovation at the Huff OEDK Engineering Design Showcase held at the Ion last month.

“Having spent a year on it now and putting so much time into it, getting to see the result of all that work come together is really rewarding,” Peck said in the statement.

“With a project like this, integration was critical,” Zislis added. “Another takeaway for me is the importance of determining a clear scope for any given project. With this robot, we could have focused on a lot of different things. For instance, we could have worked on improving fuel cell efficiency or making a robotic arm. Instead, we chose to keep these other elements simple so as not to divert focus away from the main part, which is the buoyancy control device. This kind of decision-making process is not just part of good engineering, but it’s relevant with everything in life.”

Elzner, for instance, focused on the dashboard that the robot feeds information to as it collects data from different sensors. It displays core system information, real-time graphs of the robot’s location and a simulation of its relative orientation, according to the statement.

Darwall, took a " deep dive into control theory and learn(ed) new software" to incorporate the video game joystick that allows the robot to combine manual control with an automatic stabilizing algorithm.

The proof-of-concept robot has potential applications in environmental monitoring, oceanographic research, and military and industrial tasks, according to Rice.

The team based the project on an academic paper by Houston researchers that showed that fuel cell-enabled depth control could reduce autonomous underwater vehicles’ energy consumption by as much as 85 percent.

It was authored by Rice professor Fathi Ghorbel and members of the University of Houston's Zheng Chen lab.

“This collaborative research aims to develop tetherless continuum soft engines that utilize reversible proton exchange membrane fuel cells and water electrolyzers to drive volume-mass transformation," Ghorbel said in a statement. "Through this design project, the BayMax team proved the efficacy of this technology in AUV interaction with the physical world.”

Ghorbel, Rice mechanical engineering lecturer David Trevas, and Professor in the Practice, Electrical and Computer and Engineering Gary Woods mentored the team.

Last month Rice also held its 24th annual Rice Business Plan Competition, doling out more than $1.5 million in investment and cash prizes to the top teams. Click here to see what student-led startups took home awards.
Rice University is Ivy League level, per a new report. Photo via Rice.edu

Houston school named among 'New Ivies' on Forbes list

top of class

Rice University has hit Ivy League status — at least according to Forbes.

A new list from Forbes has identified 10 public and 10 private schools that churn out top graduates, and Rice University makes the cut.

“We are delighted to see Rice University recognized as one of America’s producers of great talent. Rice has been a recruiting destination for employers for many years and that is because Rice students are adaptable, curious, bright and are solution oriented,” Nicole Van Den Heuvel , executive director of the Center for Career Development, says in a news release from Rice.

“We know, anecdotally, that Rice students thrive in workplaces because they are motivated learners, team players and problem solvers,” Van Den Heuvel continues. “Employers seek diverse talent and skill sets, and Rice students nurture career competencies throughout their time at Rice and post grad.”

The report evaluated 1,743 colleges of at least 4,000 students and looked at admissions data from 2022. The process then eliminated schools with admission rates above 20 percent for private institutions and 50 percent for public universities, narrowing down the pool of schools to 32. Then, Forbes surveyed hiring managers about the remaining candidates to decide on the 20 universities.

The University of Texas at Austin, the only other Texas school represented in the report, made the list of public schools. The full lists are available online.

Rice University's SynthX Center, a collaborative lab focused on cancer treatments, named its inaugural seed grant recipients. Photo via Getty Images

3 Houston cancer-focused research projects receive seed grants from new innovative initiative

funding the future

Three groundbreaking projects have just received seed grants from a new Houston-based source.

This spring, Rice University launched its Synthesis X Center with the goal of fostering the growth of cancer technologies and medications. Now, the SynthX, as it is known, and Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center have announced joint awards of grants to promising teams, all of which have principals at either Rice or Baylor.

The teams include:

  • A project from Drs. Pabel Miah of Baylor and Lei Li of Rice that involves the development and optimization of high-resolution imaging technology that’s intended for use in removing breast cancer from patients. The researchers combine ultrasound with photoacoustic technology to produce real-time imaging that allows surgeons to spot hard-to-locate tumors. This could reduce or eliminate tumor localization procedures which are invasive and costly.
  • A leukemia treatment profiting from molecular jackhammers, a type of molecule invented in the Rice University lab of Dr. James Tour. He’s joined in the project by Drs. Xin Li and Yongcheng Song, both of Baylor. Molecular jackhammers vibrate more than a trillion times per second when activated by a specific light frequency. Doing this can kill nearby cancer cells. The new treatment is intended to disrupt the activity of a transcription protein called ENL that helps fuel the growth of leukemia cells in several acute forms of the disease.
  • A project that could discover how to inspire cancer cells to kill themselves, using a cancer-associated enzyme called lysine demethylase 4A. Baylor’s Dr. Ruhee Dere and Rice’s Dr. Anna Karin-Gustavsson are studying the KDM4A with the process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in mind for the aberrant cells.

The seed grants are managed by Rice’s office for Educational and Research Initiatives for Collaborative Health (ENRICH). Each of the three grants is intended to last two years and includes funds of up to $80,000.

The goal is to allow research teams to collect preliminary data that can be used to apply for more substantial grants from bodies like the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) or the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Three quarters of the funds will be provided in the first year. Teams that produce grant submissions with multiple principal investigators in that first year will be eligible to collect the additional quarter.

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

Rice University's student startup competition names 2024 winners, awards $100,000 in prizes

taking home the W

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

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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.

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.