Noleus Technologies wins grand prize at Rice Launch Challenge

Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) was buzzing with excitement on a warm spring evening in late March as more than 300 members of the Rice and Houston entrepreneurship community gathered for the H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge (RLC).

Participants and organizers of the Rice Launch Challenge pose for a photo after the end of the competition. (Photo by Starlic Williams)

At the close of the three-hour event March 29, Noleus Technologies, which is developing a medical device to accelerate patient recovery following abdominal surgery by decreasing the intestinal wall swelling that causes long patient stays, walked away with the grand prize of $20,000.

The RLC is named in honor of Al Napier, one of the founders of the globally recognized entrepreneurship program at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. A professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and psychology, Napier retired in 2017.

The RLC is open to Rice undergraduate and graduate students and recent alumni and includes a stream of co-curricular workshops that run throughout the year and culminate in the new internal entrepreneurship competition in the spring. At this year’s event, startup ideas ranging from high-growth ventures to small-businesses competed for $60,000 in prize money.

Out of 50 applicants, 10 teams made it to the final round. Prior to the March event, teams were required to attend two mandatory training sessions on pitch scripts and pitch delivery. They presented their companies in 10-minute pitch and question-and-answer sessions with a panel of local entrepreneurship experts at the event emceed by John Reale, CEO of the startup hub Station Houston.

Noleus was represented at the RLC by Rice bioengineering graduate students Emily Evans and Sydney Gibson. The team also includes Dr. Robert Ochoa, an executive MBA student at Rice. The inventor of the device and CEO of the company is Dr. Swarna Balasubramaniam, a surgeon in Houston.

“Winning the challenge means that all of the hard work our team has put in has paid off,” Evans said. “Pitching is the fun part; developing the business plan takes time, energy, perseverance and passion — much like a Ph.D. Winning the challenge means that we were able to communicate effectively about the value of our company. It was extremely valuable for us to get this validation and to continue to build relationships that can help Noleus in the long term.”

Teams had 10 minutes to make their pitch and answer questions from the judges. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

In addition to winning the Rice Launch Challenge, Noleus advanced to the semifinals in the Rice Business Plan Competition, the world’s richest and largest student startup competition, which took place April 5-7 at the Jones Graduate School of Business.

Luminuncio, a digital car-top advertising display that provides hyper-targeted ads to a local demographic with the goal of more effective marketing campaigns, won the $12,500 Norman Dresden Leebron Prize in Entrepreneurship for best undergraduate team at the RLC. Represented by Francis Bunt, a Martel College junior majoring in electrical engineering, the Luminuncio team also includes Francis’ brother, Patricio Bunt, who is studying computer science at Texas A&M University, and Louis Smidt, a Baker College junior majoring in electrical engineering.

The display is intended for advertising companies in Mexico who wish to give their clients a better return on investment, Francis Bunt said.

“I started looking into this in Mexico (City) and realized there was a huge demand due to how big the city is,” he said. “I got the prototypes developed down there, the network back end in place with BuenoCell — a Mexican mobile virtual network operator, the first on Telcel’s network — and began talks with taxi fleets in the city. These displays are currently around the size of a standard taxi-top advertising display you’d see around various cities.”

Bunt said winning the prize is “groundbreaking” for the company. “This means we actually have the funding to begin to make this project a reality,” he said. “It means that the judges and investors took a look at all the work that’s been done on this project — from the business model to the go-to-market approach, to the pricing structures, to our unique solution — and actually saw potential. And even if this is the only award money we win, I’m positive we can bootstrap from here and begin to expand our market control exponentially over the next few months and years.”

Al Napier, one of the founders of the globally recognized entrepreneurship program at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, listens to a team make a pitch. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Other winning teams at the RLC included PredictMX, an equipment-monitoring and analysis solution for midsize oil field service companies, which won the $12,500 prize for best graduate team; Eyedea, a user-friendly solution that provides deskilled and standardized tissue-preparation methods for eye bank technicians processing Descemet’s membrane, won the $12,500 prize for best alumni team; and undergraduate team CherryPick, a sports analytics service that delivers game statistics accurately and in a fraction of the time using machine learning and computer vision, won the $2,500 prize for audience favorite.

Recognizing Al Napier and Edward Williams

In late 2017, Dacia and Lanham Napier donated $1 million in honor of Lanham’s father, Al Napier, to fund the new startup competition at Rice.

Napier began teaching at Rice Business in 1982 and, together with Edward Williams, professor emeritus of entrepreneurship, is credited with introducing students to entrepreneurial skills through experience-based learning long before the academic discipline of entrepreneurship had been established and before most universities were teaching the subject.

“All of the things that we do here … all of this rests on the foundation of the work that and Al and Ed began many years go,” said Yael Hochberg, the head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and the Ralph S. O’Connor Professor of Entrepreneurship and Professor of Finance at Rice Business. “We’re honored to have Al here today to share in this new generation and new vision of entrepreneurship.”

The RLC was sponsored by Rice Business, Lilie and the Rice Entrepreneurs Organization. For more information about the challenge, go to https://entrepreneurship.rice.edu/lilie/experiences/rice-launch-challenge.

About Jeff Falk

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