Rice startup Rebellion Photonics wins Wall Street Journal Startup of the Year competition

Rebellion Photonics, a Rice University startup company founded in 2010 by two alumni, was named the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) “Startup of the Year” Nov. 4 in New York City. The company beat 23 other finalists during the five-month-long selection process.

Standing at the podium, Rice alumni Robert Kester '10, left, and Allison Lami Sawyer '10 address the audience after winning the Wall Street Journal's "Startup of the Year" competition.

Rebellion Photonics, which makes the first real-time camera for chemical imaging and detection, was launched from the lab of Tomasz Tkaczyk, a Rice associate professor in bioengineering, and founded by Rice alumni Robert Kester ’10 and Allison Lami Sawyer ’10.

The company was one of 24 startups chosen by WSJ editors to participate in the competition and documentary, which premiered in June. As winners, Rebellion Photonics received a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal as well as two of the paper’s iconic stipple drawings, one for each of the co-founders.

“Rebellion Photonics is the ultimate story of a university startup,” said Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. “It has all the elements: a faculty- and Ph.D. student-developed technology; a partnership with an MBA student to commercialize the technology and launch a new startup company; and mentoring from an expert group of professors, entrepreneurs and investors in the Rice community.”

Rebellion Photonic’s camera is intended for continuous monitoring of oil rigs and refineries to help spot poisonous and potentially explosive gas leaks. The technology can detect at least 20 different gases simultaneously and can also be applied in a variety of other areas, such as defense, biological research, food contamination detection, quality control and forensics.

Sawyer, who earned an MBA, and Kester, who earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering, met in their final year at Rice through one of their original mentors, Thomas Kraft, director of technology ventures development at the Rice Alliance. The team was formed as part of an ongoing initiative to pair graduate students from the George R. Brown School of Engineering with MBA students from the Jones Graduate School of Business.

The Rebellion Photonics co-founders competed as graduate students at the 2010 Rice Business Plan Competition (RBPC) and finished as a runner-up; they won $100,000 in seed funding from Opportunity Houston and Greater Houston Partnership. They also earned the right to compete at the RBPC by winning an internal competition held in an entrepreneurship course taught by Dennis Murphree, a venture capital and private equity investor from Houston. The Rice Business Plan Competition is the world’s richest and largest graduate student startup competition.

“We are very proud of Allison and Robert,” Burke said. “They have gotten great traction with their company since graduation and we expect the company to be very successful.”

For more information about the WSJ competition and the participants, visit http://projects.wsj.com/soty.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.