Annual Rice business competition heats up
By Andrea Rumbaugh
|Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle
Clayton Shepard, left, CTO of Skylark Wireless, holds an orginial prototype while Ryan Guerra, right, CEO of Skylark Wireless, holds the production size of their long radio for last-mile broadband internet connectivity shown Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in Houston.
|Photo: Melissa Phillip, Staff
Sensytec team members Dylan Senter, left, Ody De La Paz, Kevin Cho, Anudeep Reddy and Nick Ravanbakhsh, right, pose together at the University of Houston Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in Houston.
Six years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, University of Houston undergrads Kevin Cho and Dylan Senter will stand before potential investors and pitch a product they say could have helped prevent the catastrophe.
Their company, Sensytec, makes smart cement that can detect pressure, cracks, corrosion and other damages. It works by sending electrical impulses into a special cement mixture with metal filings. The impulses interact with the filings to determine if there's damage.
"With this technology we believe we can prevent future catastrophic events and save lives," Cho said.
Sensytec is one of 42 teams that will compete in the 16th annual Rice Business Plan Competition Thursday through Saturday at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.
The event, billed as the world's richest and largest student startup competition, has students pitch their businesses to judges who evaluate the teams as if they were going to invest in them. Roughly 60 percent of the judges are actual investors, giving students an opportunity to network and take home real money.
The winner receives a prize valued at more than $300,000, including seed funding and the opportunity to ring the closing bell at Nasdaq MarketSite. Overall, students will vie for more than $1.3 million in prizes.
"Despite the downturn in the energy industry, we've seen an increase in support for some areas of the competition," said Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which hosts the event with the Jones School.
The Indus Entrepreneurs, for instance, spearheaded a new angel investment prize of $50,000. The GOOSE Society of Texas increased its portion of the grand prize to $300,000 from $250,000. And there are three new cash prizes of $100,000, $25,000 and $10,000 through the Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Challenge.
TMCx, the Texas Medical Center's accelerator, also increased the number of teams it will accept into its accelerator program and co-working area.
Burke said there were many strong life sciences teams applying for this year's competition; 18 teams were accepted for the life sciences category, up from 12 last year. The other categories are information technology/Web/mobile; energy/clean technology/sustainability; and other.
"This competition can be, in some ways, life changing for the teams and the students who come here," Burke said.
Cho and Senter have dreamed of getting into the Rice Business Plan Competition since they first enrolled in college, maybe earlier. Cho volunteered at last year's event to determine the caliber of teams competing and what type of questions judges might ask.
Sensytec's smart cement was created by Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan, a professor at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. He approached the students for help in commercializing his product.
"We see Rice as a really great chance to start working with investors in the Houston area," Senter said.
Kemal Anbarci, managing executive of Chevron Technology Ventures, the venture capital arm of Chevron Corp., likes to judge the event because it keeps him up-to-date on new technology trends.
"It's a glimpse to the future," he said. "We need to see what's coming our way."
Chevron Technology Ventures hasn't invested in a business during the competition because the companies are too young. It has, however, invested after maturation. The competition is a good opportunity for Anbarci to provide feedback on how companies could one day become a supplier for Chevron or receive future financing from the company.
In the past 17 years, Chevron has made direct investments in more than 70 companies. It has also invested in 17 venture funds that invest on behalf of Chevron. Chevron currently has about 35 active investments, including four in the Houston area.
With stubbornly low oil prices hurting the industry, Anbarci is specifically seeking companies that can become "field ready in the next 18 months" instead of companies that won't benefit Chevron for another five years.
Rice University has two teams competing in the event: Arovia and Skylark Wireless.
Alexander Wesley and Jake Herzig, both in the university's MBA program, are competing with Arovia. The company's product is called SPUD, short for Spontaneous Pop-Up Display.
"We identified that there's a problem," Wesley said. "You either have a screen that's portable or a screen that's large."
So they created a 24-inch screen that collapses to the size of a paperback book. It can connect wirelessly or with a wire to smartphones and computers. And it can duplicate what's being seen on the smaller screen or can be used side-by-side, offering dual screens to work from.
They are looking forward to networking and possibly raising money at the competition. And in early summer, they will launch a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise money and sell the product to consumers.
Ryan Guerra and Clayton Shepard, doctoral students in electrical engineering, are with Skylark Wireless. The company created a wireless product that gets high-speed Internet to rural homes, many of which don't have reliable cable connections.
Through unused broadcast-television frequencies, Skylark can send Internet to a box installed at rural houses. The residents can then use this for their own personal Internet. Skylark can currently send Internet to homes more than 10 miles from its base station. One day, it hopes to have a range of 50 miles.
Guerra and Shepard have been funding the company by designing wireless equipment for other companies on the side. They need financing to begin a pilot program at the end of this year.
"I think this is really going to put us on the map," Guerra said. "This is an enormous competition. A great opportunity for us."