Semiconductor heat management company wins 2024 NRLC hosted by Lilie


HEXASpec won the top prize and $50,000 cash at the 2024 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge (NRLC) hosted by Rice University’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) April 16.

Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin — part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program — are using HEXASpec’s novel new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, saving energy and millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. The sustainable, inorganic fillers for next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature.

Chen-Yang Lin and Tianshu Zhai
Chen-Yang Lin and Tianshu Zhai. Photo courtesy of Lilie.

The NRLC is a competition where students from all across campus can pitch their business ventures to win a share of $100,000 in equity-free funding. The reception after the competition serves as the year-end party for the entrepreneurship ecosystem, where the Lilie leadership team, as well as an auditorium full of students, celebrate the ventures.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” said Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention. We’re a one-stop shop for everything you need at every stage of your entrepreneurial journey from exploration to acceleration, regardless of what major or degree program or flavor of entrepreneurship speaks to you, because as long as you’re working at the intersection of your passion and your professional ambition, Lilie’s the right place for you.”

Yael Hochberg, head of Rice Entrepreneurship Initiatives, described how the Napier competition started with about 10 teams presenting to a small audience — and how the last two years in a row have seen more than 100 student ventures compete.

Al Napier was one of the founding fathers of entrepreneurship on this campus,” Hochberg said. “He has lit the torch and given us our mission, and we are so absolutely thrilled to be able to build in his image.”

Before the finalists take the stage of the Grand Hall in the Rice Memorial Center for the championship round, there are two rounds of pitching to a panel of judges from across the Rice startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem. These rounds start with more than 100 student ventures and culminate with the final five in the championship round. Every team can utilize Lilie’s resources to develop their viability as well as their presentation.

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” said Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

Lanham Napier, Veronica Juarez, Kent Lucas
Lanham Napier, Veronica Juarez, Kent Lucas. Photo courtesy of Lilie.

HEXASpec, along with the four other finalist teams, presented their businesses to a panel of judges who were able to ask each of the competing teams tough questions about their business plans and ultimately vote on their selections for a multitude of prizes. Judges Kent Lucas, founding partner at non sibi ventures; Veronica Juarez, managing partner at Dahlia VC and founder of arturo advisory; Zafir Khan, head of consumer product at WhatsApp; and Lanham Napier, co-founder of Build Group and former CEO of Rackspace, listened to the presentations and delivered questions as well as advice to the teams in order to select the winners.

The teams are judged on their presentation delivery, understanding of the market or customer and the venture’s viability. This year the judging panels elected to double the prizes for Outstanding Achievement in Artificial Intelligence and Climate Solutions categories due to the caliber of the competitors. Teams from all three rounds of the NRLC are eligible for the sidecar prizes.

  • First place — $50,000
    • HEXASpec
  • Second place — $25,000
    • CoFlux Purification
  • Third place — $15,000
    • Bonfire
  • Outstanding Achievement in Social Impact Award — $1,500
    • EmpowerU
  • Outstanding Achievement in Artificial Intelligence — $1,000
    • Sups
    • Levytation
  • Outstanding Achievement in Consumer Goods Prize — $1,000
    • The Blind Bag
  • Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations in Music, Fashion and the Arts — $1,500
    • Melody
  • Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes — $1,000
    • Solidec
    • HEXASpec
  • Outstanding Undergraduate Startup Award — $2,500
    • Women’s Wave
  • Audience Choice Award — $2,000
    • CoFlux Purification

The NRLC is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation and generous donors.