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Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A Houston-based software startup received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health for its work within neurophysiology. Getty Images

Armed with a nearly $3.8 million federal grant, a Houston startup aims to boost neuroscience research around the world.

Vathes LLC, a developer of data management software that collaborates with neuroscience research labs in North America and Europe, recently received the $3.78 million grant from the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That initiative is part of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Vathes says the NIH funding will enable the startup to ramp up its DataJoint Pipelines for Neurophysiology project. The project aims to make open-source software for data science and engineering available to researchers who specialize in neurophysiology, a branch of neuroscience that looks at how the nervous system functions. The pipeline project holds the promise of benefiting research in areas like autism, Alzheimer's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

The project's principal investigator is Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development at Vathes. Technologically speaking, neuroscientists are playing catch-up with their counterparts in fields like astrophysics, genomics, and bioinformatics, according to Yatsenko.

Neuroscience "is undergoing a fast transformation in terms of moving toward much more data-centric, data-intensive, computation-intensive, and collaborative projects," Yatsenko says. This means that neuroscientists are "now finding themselves having to quickly adapt to an environment," he adds, "where they have to share big data and computations with their collaborators in very dynamic settings and perform them in a very fluid way."

Yatsenko says the NIH-funded project will help smaller research groups tap into the technical expertise of larger research labs.

Vathes' DataJoint Neuro platform and services, which help create so-called DataJoint pipelines, enable neuroscientists to streamline, analyze, and visualize complex data. Among its customers are Princeton University's Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute. The federally funded project will empower smaller labs to capitalize on existing DataJoint pipelines as ready-to-go turnkey packages, Yatsenko says.

In essence, Vathes' technology acts as a translator. Big research labs collect data in databases that can vary by computer language and platform. Through the Vathes setup, that data can be incorporated by a lab of any size into algorithmic, machine learning, and artificial intelligence mechanisms, regardless of the computer language or platform.

Edgar Walker, CEO of Vathes, says this simplifies the construction and use of databases, giving scientists "more room to focus on the logic of their data pipeline rather than on the physical implementation of it."

Founded in 2016, Vathes is housed at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. It employs 10 people. The startup previously received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Yatsenko says the project backed by the $3.78 million NIH grant will propel the startup's growth, as it "gives us a big window of opportunity" to provide tools and services that support the startup's open-source software.

"As the NIH and other funding agencies are shifting a lot of their focus to collaborative projects that are distributed among multiple institutions," Walker says, "we've established a reputation as the company that can facilitate such research, be efficient, and actually be cost-effective as well, and make the projects very smooth."

"We expect to continue to grow this business at the same exponential rate," he adds. "We'll keep our fingers crossed and see how things go."


CEO Edgar Walker (left) and Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development, lead Houston-based Vathes. Photos courtesy of Vathes

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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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