The idea for Splay, a unique device perfect for a mobile workforce, was born on the Rice University campus. Images courtesy

A Houston company born out of Rice University has crowdfunded its way into the manufacturing phase of its startup journey.

Arovia, founded by Alex Wesley and George Zhu, has a product that solves some major obstacles people on the go face as they work — or entertain — from home, a hotel, coffee shop, etc. Splay is a unique collapsable, portable device that doubles as both a display and projector.

The founders first launched their product in 2016 and raised over $700,000 from backers on their crowdfunding campaign. After raising investment funding, including an investment from the Texas Halo Fund, Wesley and Zhu recently returned to their crowdfunding roots and ran a 30-day pre-order campaign on Kickstarter during which they sold over $300,000 worth of product.

“We couldn't have made Splay without the Houston Startup Community," Wesley says.

Wesley was an MBA student when he met Zhu, who was working towards a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, after posting a job description in search of a co-founder, a requirement of the Owlspark program.

“Owlspark accepted the business idea, with the stipulation that I needed to find a co-founder,” says Wesley. “I sent out a job description, and a big part of the application process was to provide ideas for making this crazy idea work. I sent the job description at around 9 pm and received an email from George at around 1 am with an extremely detailed proposal. That was the start; and since then, we’ve basically been like brothers — I’ve even lived with him and his parents in China.”

Wesley credits Owlspark as an important part of their formation, beyond the impetus for their partnership.

“It was a great experience for us. The focus on customer interviews is something that is very easy to avoid, but it’s extremely important. You don’t have a product if nobody wants to buy it — you don’t have a company without customers," Wesley says. "During our time at Owlspark, we did over 100 customer interviews, which gave a lot of insight into the viability of the idea and who it would be useful for. We still utilize many of those insights today.”

But Owlspark wasn’t the only accelerator program that Wesley and Zhu joined. They also participated in Hax, a top hardware-focused accelerator, and Luminate, a top optics-focused accelerator. They also competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition, which Wesley says helped them refine their pitch which ultimately secured their funding.

“We pitched at angel groups including the Houston Angel Network and their fund The Halo Fund, Keiretsu Forum and their fund Keiretsu Capital, Rochester Angel Network, and the GOOSE Society. We also won the Texas A&M New Venture Competition,” says Wesley.

With this financial backing, Arovia received the necessary support for the R&D phase for Splay, taking the product into its manufacturing process and pre-sale campaign.

“Yes, it went very well,” shares Wesley, adding that they are still looking for support on the Indiegogo campaign. “Now we are focusing on pre-selling in other markets, like Japan."

Splay can be used as a portable screen, or the projector can be removed to be used on its own. Photo via Splay

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.