Houston voices

How to engage potential clients or investors for your science-based startup or technology

Words are hard. Here's how to pick the best ones to use to better communicate your science-based startup's mission. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

So you're a researcher. Communicating science to a non-scientific audience scares the chemistry out of you.

You've spent your entire career studying fungiform papillae density. The mere thought of fungiform papillae density gives you a rush that even love cannot provide. You know everything about fungiform papillae density. One day you have an interview with a reporter. You're preparing to present at a conference for shareholders. You're writing a grant application. Or you're just at the family cookout and your crazy Uncle Joe with the glass eye wants to know what you do for work.

It's time.

This is the moment where you have to reach deep within yourself to scrape every bit of communications skill in your body. It's time to do what has challenged even the most brilliant scientific minds for ages: explain your work simply.

Yes, there is difficulty in simplicity. The irony is as rich as it is tragic.

Thankfully, there is hope. There are plenty of things you can do to ensure your message is communicated effectively to your non-scientific audience.

Communicating science with better word choices

The old '80s band Missing Persons once sang, "What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"

If what you're saying is not engaging, direct, or simple to understand, your listener will stop listening. The same thing is true for writing.

The words you use matter. They determine whether or not your audience will lock on to what you're trying to convey. Use language that is clear and simple and registers your message.

Personal pronouns like I, you, we help connect readers with the writer and his or her message. Such pronouns present your writing as more of a conversation. People tend to invest more in a conversation than a research paper. Conversations are natural and everyone understands them because everyone is experienced with them. The same cannot be said for research papers about, say, the role of lactic acid production by probiotic Lactobacillus species.

Let's look at the pronouns in action. In the first sentence, you'll see an unnecessarily long, bombastic, impersonal message. In the second, you'll find a more personable, inviting message:

Investigators with supplemental queries or interest in funding opportunities should contact the program.

Contact us if you are interested in funding opportunities.

Words are choice

Your word choices are vital in helping your readers digest your material. Choosing the appropriate words in communicating science stories can not only capture your readers' attention, but keep it.

Use positive words over negative ones. Negative words like don't or not can confuse readers.

Consider this sentence: "The machine doesn't run if you don't follow these instructions exactly as they are written."

It's confusing, isn't it?

Let's rework it with positive words: "The machine will run better if you follow these instructions exactly."

Now there's a sentence that inspires hope.

Inclusive language also helps everyone feel engaged. Stay away from male only pronouns like he and his. Unless you're writing a research paper specifically about men, it's always better to use inclusive language so that non-male readers can follow along and become invested in what you're communicating.

Simple sentences

Using direct, efficiently constructed sentences well get your point across most effectively. According to the search engine optimization platform Yoast, you should keep your sentences under 20 words. Keeping it short with no more than two punctuation points in the body of the sentence will help the reader understand your message. It lets them breathe. It's not overwhelming when it's short.

Make sure to keep your sentences simple, too. Make sure you only cover one idea in every sentence. Keep each paragraph centered on one theme only. Introducing more than one idea or theme will dilute the focus a reader has, because he or she has to divide their attention to give to more things.

Cut the fat. You don't need intensifiers like very, really, actually, or carefully in communicating science stories. They don't really have a purpose. If something is hot and you want to emphasize that point, don't describe it as "really hot." Instead, say that it's "dangerously hot." Say that people have been hospitalized from touching this hot thing. Now you're really saying something.

Verbs with a vengence

Summon the absolute power of verbs.

"Frankie broke the guitar" is a much more vivid portrayal of what happened than "The guitar was broken by Frankie."

Passive voice is often used in a not-so-creative way to hide wrongdoing.

"The money was taken."

Who took the money? The reader might conclude that the writer is hiding something.

"The store manager took the money."

Now you're telling us something we can use. Arrest the store manager.

What you just witnessed is the difference between passive voice (the former) and the active voice (the latter).

It's undeniable that the choices you make with your words and sentences can either connect or kill your audience's interest. They can make the process of communicating science easier or put the brakes on.

Making your technical paper a casual conversation without compromising the integrity of your research helps the lay audience follow along. Using active voice over passive voice helps your readers maintain interest because you're showing a sense of action where someone is doing something. Using universal pronouns expands your reach because everyone can feel they can invest in your writing. Hope is not lost. You can communicate even the most arcane material to the least scientific audiences.

"It is easy for us to forget the power of words. We use them the way an engineer uses a slide rule or a surgeon uses a scalpel." – Jonathan Capehart, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Washington Post.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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