Big Money Follows Big Talk at Rice University’s Startup Competition

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TiE Houston president says the students were put through three days of rigorous question-and-answer sessions to prepare to compete.

The third international finalist was EcoBreeze, a company out of the National University of Taiwan that pitched an alternative to rotary fans to cool down computers and other electronic devices. EcoBreeze won third place overall.

Rice University’s own A-76 took second place overall and won a number of other awards. The Rice Alliance is still doing the final tally, but by my count the cleantech startup nabbed at least $300,000.

Mercury wasn’t the only group to announce bonus awards. The Women’s Health and Wellness Innovations Prize gave out two smaller awards in addition to its main $25,000 prize. The Goose group did give out a second prize, $100,000 to A-76.

The Department of Energy would not, however, be following suit, cautioned Jennifer Gerson, who was announcing the agency’s $100,000 clean energy prize to KAirBattery from the University of Michigan for its “potassium-air” batteries.

“So, I have federal taxpayer dollars,” she said to audience laughter. When someone yelled out to “just add a zero,” she responded: “Sure, why not—you guys are paying for it.”

In total, more than 50 awards were handed out, adding up to a contest record of about $3.5 million. Even those that did not make the first cut, such as SioTeX, left the competition with some amount of money—the Texas State University startup makes a green replacement for fumed silica and won the $125,000 Texas Halo Fund prize. “You don’t have to be in the finals to get the big check,” Victor Elgohary, a founder of the angel fund, told the group. “Sometimes your business is investable. You just have to keep trying.”

In 2001, the competition started with 10 startups competing for a total of $10,000 in prize money. This year, it attracted about 1,200 applications, which were whittled down to 42 nominees that began the contest Thursday afternoon.

Money aside, the business plan competition gives the student entrepreneur membership in a special group, says Kevin Ng, a co-founder of Bennu, a Baruch College startup that competed in 2010. Though Bennu didn’t make it out of the first round, Ng reports the company, which manufactures eco-friendly backpacks and other gear, is still in business and profitable.

I met Ng, a Houston native, at Thursday’s kick-off BBQ, and he spoke of startup life being divided into “before” and “after” the competition. The ties back to Rice are so strong that for several years, Bennu provided the conference bags.

This year, Ng’s co-founder Ashok Kamal joined fellow alum Nicholas Seet, whose startup Auditude won in 2005, to found the RBPC Alumni Prize. “It changes your life,” Ng says. “We just wanted to give back.”

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3 responses to “Big Money Follows Big Talk at Rice University’s Startup Competition”

  1. Aruna says:

    This is a really great piece – really celebrates the amazing stories from the event. Thanks Angela! Brad is going to have a real challenge in 2015!

  2. Ashok Kamal says:

    Always great going back to where it all started for many of us! Thank you RBPC.