Rice’s OwlSpark Accelerator Debuts First Class of Startups

The inaugural class of Rice University’s OwlSpark accelerator made its debut last week.

A group of nine companies comprised the new accelerator’s class when it formed last May, including three composed of undergrads, three of graduate students, and three that are staffed by alumni.

They range from IT-based analytical companies aiming to help customers make better investment decisions, healthcare providers assess a patient’s condition in real time, or recruiters to build better corporate teams to startups that offer solutions to maximize parking options, monitor your alcohol consumption, or better organize the holiday gift-giving list. And three others focused on social entrepreneurial enterprises that included helping African youth innovate, delivering more efficient and effective aid to disaster and war victims, and an idea to build a private school for the middle class.

In total, the startups have already raised $1.1 million, and the entrepreneurs will have access to Rice offices for nine months as the companies continue to grow. Each founder received a $1,000 monthly stipend for the duration of the three-month program, “Ramen noodle money” that could help pay the bills while they focused on fine-tuning their business ideas, said Darren Clifford, an OwlSpark co-founder.

He added that the startup ecosystem both within Rice and around it–including the Texas Medical Center and NASA—have all nurtured the program. “We’ve found it takes a village to raise a startup,” he said.

Rice University president David Leebron praised the students, saying their work perfectly captures the essence of the university’s efforts to promote entrepreneurship. “Not since the time of Alexander the Great have young people been capable of changing the universe,” he said.

Next year’s OwlSpark class will come together in May. Here are details of the accelerator’s first group:

Checked Twice: An online gift registry designed for families to coordinate holiday giving. Founder Andrew Swick said his family has been using the platform for five years and the startup is planning a massive expansion with affinity partnerships with Amazon and other retailers. Family members can all log into a site, where individuals can upload their wish lists. Others can click on those items and purchase them—without letting the recipient know what was bought.

The site currently has 15,000 users and hopes to reach 100,000 people by the holiday season. It is seeking to add $400,000 in funding to the $130,000 it has raised so far.

Village Innovators: This social entrepreneurship startup hopes to boost innovation among African youth by providing educational guides to schools. These guides would detail how, using locally salvaged materials, these youth and their communities can build wind turbines, solar cookers, and other needed infrastructure and products.

Founder and CEO Andrew Amis says the company has agreements so far with 10 schools in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and it hopes to raise $130,000 to expand into a total of 100 schools.

OwlEngine: Founder and CEO Andy Shih says their project hopes to combine data, analysis, and artificial intelligence to “replace humans in stock trading.”

Shih says the startup can provide better returns than current methods, which are subject to human bias. He said OwlEngine’s trades over the past week netted a gain of 0.04 percent, even as the major indices fell into the red. “I trust only one thing, data,” he says. “Data will never lie to me or use ignorance as an advantage.”

ConceptNode: This startup aims to use data analytics to help companies recruit employees and build more effective teams. David Sullivan, its CEO, says the startup goes beyond traditional human-resources management by analyzing data on work history, skills, and personal interests with graph theory to help companies assemble teams that will work the best together.

ConceptNode is currently conducting a pilot with Morningstar and is seeking $70,000 to help fund other pilot programs.

Medical Informatics: Led by Rice alumna Emma Faust, Medical Informatics provides a platform where all physiological data is collected, processed, and analyzed in real-time for use by health care providers. The data can be accessed via tablets and smartphones and is designed to help caregivers, especially those in trauma care, better and more efficiently process the health-care data available for patients.

The startup has already signed up Texas Children’s Hospital as one client and raised $800,000. It plans to register its platform with the Food & Drug Administration and to raise a Series A financing in 2014.

Sweatalyzer: This startup manufactures a band-aid-sized wearable device that can monitor blood-alcohol content through human sweat. Developed by bioengineering graduate students, the Sweatalyzer—currently in a patch the shape of Texas—is a one-time-use device that turns darker as the BAC increases to 0.02 percent, 0.08 percent (the legal limit in Texas), and 0.15 percent.

“It stops measuring at 1.5 percent,” said Jay Dhuldhoya, its CEO. “There is an upper limit so it can’t be used as a drinking game. This was very important to universities.”

Dhuldhoya says Sweatalyzer’s customers go beyond university and high schools. They are looking at approaching companies in oil-and-gas, construction, manufacturing, and other sectors where worker safety is monitored.

CoachedSchooling: Mike Olson, the startup’s CEO and a longtime teacher, calls this edtech concept creating “high-tech private schools that are affordable to the middle class.”

The startup provides an online portal that offers edtech software-as-a-service curriculum to set up small, low-cost K-12 private schools. CoachedSchooling has launched a proof-of-concept school in Houston and seeks $250,000 in seed funding.

ParkiT: Four undergraduate engineering students formed ParkiT to develop image-detection technology to better manage parking facilities. The entrepreneurs are looking to start a pilot with the Houston Arts District’s garage and are seeking $150,000 in seed money.

The Emergency Core: This social entrepreneurship startup, run by two Rice architecture students, aims to solve a very simple problem: providing dislocated victims of natural or man-made disasters with flooring in their temporary shelters. The product is a shipping crate or pallet that can hold emergency goods for victims, but upon distribution of those goods, can then be broken down to be used as a mobile flooring system.

Co-founder Scott Key says they will start a pilot with the Red Cross in the spring and that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reviewed their product. Emergency Core is seeking $28,000 in funding.

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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