Mirri and Tsentalovich are rising stars for carbon nanotube fibers, Tricoche is devoted to improving public education through educational technology
Three Rice University alumni are among this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30, an honor roll of people under 30 years old who are poised to make a difference.
The duo of Francesca Mirri and Dmitri Tsentalovich, both of whom earned their doctorates in Professor Matteo Pasquali’s lab, formed DexMat in early 2015. The Houston company is developing methods to manufacture commercial quantities of the carbon nanotube fibers invented by Pasquali and his group.
Mirri and Tsentalovich were named to the manufacturing and industry list, one of 20 categories in the annual Forbes magazine roundup.
Esther Tricoche from the Class of 2010 is on the list as one of 30 leaders in education. Tricoche, who earned her undergraduate degree at Rice in cognitive science, is an associate partner at the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund.
Tricoche co-founded NewSchools Ignite, which uses philanthropic dollars to catalyze growth in educational technology market gaps in areas where teacher and student needs are not being met. As a part of her work, she also seeks to increase the number of black and Latino founders, chief executive officers and senior leadership teams in education technology.
The DexMat pair’s products are conductive materials and films made entirely of carbon nanotubes, a focus of study at Rice since the university kicked off the nanotechnology revolution with the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the C-60 molecule, aka the buckyball, in 1985.
The hair-thin but very strong fiber is being developed for energy, medical, textile and structural applications by DexMat. Among other uses, the fibers are being tested as a lightweight replacement for metal in aerospace cables, as electrodes to communicate directly with neurons in the brain and as a bridge to restore electrical health to hearts.
Making the Forbes list was a welcome way to start their first full year as a company, Mirri said. “It’s a pretty big deal to us, and it’s going to help a lot of people know about us,” she said.
The 600-strong list includes artists, athletes and scientists along with those in more business-oriented categories. Tsentalovich said he was grateful to be among all of them. “Some of the people on the list have already made it,” he said. “They’re singers and athletes who are already at the top of their games. And then there are entrepreneurs you probably haven’t heard of yet, but maybe you’ll be more familiar with them in the next few years.
“What it means for us right now is validation that what we’re doing is potentially very impactful,” Tsentalovich said. “At this point, we’re a small operation, but a vote of confidence from Forbes says, ‘OK, you guys have already done some things pretty well, and we believe that in the future you’re going to be successful.'”
Pasquali, chair of Rice’s Department of Chemistry and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering, was delighted to hear of his colleagues’ new-found fame.
“It makes me very proud,” he said. “It’s amazing what young people can do if you empower them, if you create the right environment and nurture them. You don’t have to do a whole lot more.
“Aside from personal pride, the technology is something I really believe in,” he said. “We have worked on this for 15 years. Now, DexMat is a concrete way to move the technology out into the real world at a time when the technology is more mature.”
As students, the duo won the 2015 Owl Open Student Startup competition and placed fifth in the Rice Business Plan Competition. Both continue to be associated with Pasquali’s lab, Mirri as a research scientist and Tsentalovich as a postdoctoral researcher since their graduation in 2015.
Tricoche said recognition by Forbes “gives me an even greater platform to do the work I love: find fantastic early stage entrepreneurs who are creating innovative products for schools and then invest in and advise them as they grow their products, business strategy and impact in K-12 education.”
Her passion for education prompted her to veer away from a career in neuroscience research, though she said her Rice training has been invaluable in helping companies develop and test products for young minds.
“I’m passionate about education because I had very humble beginnings,” Tricoche said. “My family was homeless for several stints throughout early childhood, and after, we moved around quite a bit. I went to three different school systems between first and seventh grade, but always had an insatiable thirst for learning. Very few kids who are growing up as I did have access to opportunities to reach their full potential. It’s my life’s mission to change that.
“The ultimate goal is that innovative ed-tech tools help to personalize the classroom learning experience so that all students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, graduate prepared to pursue their dreams.”