Seventeen of the RBPC student teams walked away with investment prizes this year. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over the weekend, Houston hosted what is known as the world’s largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competition, and a Texas team took the overall win and over $3 million in investment prizes were given out at the annual banquet.

The 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition was held May 11-13 and included mentoring, pitching, and networking for the 42 student teams with over 350 judges before culminating in over 80 prizes being announced. The $3.4 million in investment and in-kind prizes marks the largest yet for the 23-year-old competition.

"Judges told us that the quality of the startups at this year’s competition was the best ever,” says Catherine Santamaria, director of the RBPC, in the news release. “One judge went so far as to say that every startup this year was worthy of investment.”

Over 450 startups applied to the competition, and the 42 startups selected hailed from 35 universities from five countries. There were five categories: energy, clean tech and sustainability; life sciences and health care solutions; consumer products and services; hard tech; and digital enterprise. Based on the judges scores, seven startups reached the finals, and this year, three Texas teams made the finals, with two being from Rice University.

All 42 companies were eligible for investment or in-kind prizes, and, even though $1.75 million in prizes was expected to be awarded, some of this year's investors doubled — or even tripled — down on investment awards. While the finalists walked away with various in-kind prizes too, here's a round up of the investment prizes each startup won at the awards.

Zaymo, Brigham Young University — $885,000

Zaymo, a tool for e-commerce brands that embeds the shopping experience within customers’ email, won the most amount of money at the awards ceremony. The company won third place and a $50,000 Investment Prize sponsored by David Anderson, Jon Finger, Anderson Family Fund, Finger Interests, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce. Zaymo also won the following awards:

  • $200,000 OWL Investment Prize
  • $100,000 Houston Angel Network Investment Prize
  • $500,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prize
  • $15,000 Eagle Investors Prize
  • $20,000 Novak Druce Carroll Investment Prize

Boston Quantum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology — $455,000

Boston Quantum, which is using enterprise quantum computing software to disrupt the financial industry, won the second-most amount of investment prizes and sixth place in the competition.

  • $5,000 Chevron Technology Ventures Sixth-Place Cash Prize
  • $300,000 OWL Investment Prize
  • $125,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prize
  • $25,000 Urban Capital Network Diversity Investment Prize in partnership with South Loop Ventures

FluxWorks, Texas A&M University — $350,000

Based on the judges scores, the big winner was FluxWorks, a Texas company that's technology includes magnetic gears that are four times quieter than standard with 99 percent efficiency and can offer unprecedented reliability from outer space to under the sea and even inside the human body. The company won the $350,000 GOOSE Capital Investment Grand Prize.

Skali, Northwestern University — $300,000

Skali, which didn't make it into the prestigious finalist positions, still walked away with $300,000 courtesy of the Softeq Venture Fund Prize. Skali's technology aims to better equip flights with medical emergency assistance.

TierraClimate, Rice University — $280,000

TierraClimate, a marketplace for selling verified carbon offsets to corporate buyers, won fourth place and the Norton Rose Fulbright $5,000 Prize. The company also won a $200,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prize and the $75,000 OWL Investment Prize.

AirSeal, Washington University in St. Louis — $250,000

Another non-finalist that still scored big was AirSeal, a company that's created a simple blood test for cardiovascular diagnostics. The startup secured the $250,000 TMC Innovation Healthcare Investment Prize.

Sygne Solutions, Rice University — $200,000

Sygne Solutions, a startup on a mission of eliminating a group of chemicals known as PFAS in water through its patent-pending technology, won second place and the $100,000 Investment Prize, sponsored by David Anderson, Jon Finger, Anderson Family Fund, Finger Interests, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce. The company also received the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Investment Prize.

BlueVerse, Texas Tech University — $145,000

BlueVerse, a startup with tech to merge social media with reviews and rewards for small businesses, didn't make the finals but walked away with on of the $125,000 Softeq Venture Fund Prizes and the $20,000 Novak Druce Carroll Investment Prize.

Atma Leather, Yale University —$130,000

Atma Leather, a material innovation company that's created plant-based leather from banana stems and other crop waste, came in fifth place and secured the $5,000 EY Fifth-Place Cash Prize. The startup also won:

  • $75,000 OWL Investment Prizes
  • $50,000 nCourage Investment Group’s Courageous Women Entrepreneurs Investment Prize

MyLÚA Health, Cornell University — $30,000

MyLÚA Health's AI technology supports the maternal health industry. The company won the $30,000 Pearland Economic Development Corporation Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize.

Active Surfaces, Massachusetts Institute of Technology — $25,000

With its flexible and lightweight solar panel technology, Active Surfaces scored the $25,000 New Climate Ventures Sustainability Investment Prize.

Integrated Molecular Innovations, Michigan Technological University — $25,000

Integrated Molecular Innovations, which created a wearable device that can monitor hormone levels, won the $25,000 Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium Prize.

MiraHeart, Johns Hopkins University — $25,000

MiraHeart, which created a non-invasive way of monitoring child heart conditions, also won the $25,000 Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium Prize.

Biome Future, University of Florida — $20,000

Biome Future, which creates ocean-safe chemicals via microbes in corals, won one of the $20,000 Novak Druce Carroll Investment Prizes.

Citrimer, University of Michigan — $10,000

A sustainable materials company, Citrimer won the $10,000 NABACO RBPC Alumni Network Prize.

Thryft Ship, University of Georgia — $10,000

Thryft Ship, which streamlines the shipping process for social media sellers, won a $10,000 nCourage Investment Group’s Courageous Women Entrepreneurs Investment Prize.

Pathways, Harvard University  — $5,000

Pathways, which is developing a full-stack sustainability platform for the construction industry, won $5,000 Shell Ventures Seventh-Place Cash Prize.

In addition to these investment prizes, the startups have the chance to score in-kind prizes. This year, that included:

  • $6,667 Baker Botts Legal Services In-Kind Prize to FluxWorks, Texas A&M University
  • $6,667 Baker Botts Legal Services In-Kind Prize to Sygne Solutions, Rice University
  • $6,667 Baker Botts Legal Services In-Kind PrizeFluxWorks to Zaymo, Brigham Young University
  • $10,000 New York Technology Capital CFO Consulting In-Kind to FluxWorks, Texas A&M University
  • EFN Mentoring Services to all startup competitors
  • Amazon Web Services to all startup competitors
  • Stage 2 Competition Entry to Sygne Solutions, Rice University
All 42 of the RBPC companies wins at least $950. In each of the three semi-final rounds, third place wins $2,000, fourth place wins $1,750, and fifth place wins $1,500. The wild card round, which acts as a second-chance competition for the companies that didn't originally make it to the finals, advances the wild card winner into the finals and also awards second place $1,000, third place $975, fourth place $950, and fifth place $950.
Here's what student-founded companies won big at this annual competition. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Annual Rice student startup competition names winners, awards over $100,000 in prizes

winning teams

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.
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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.