Rice Alliance, based at Houston’s very own Rice University, is the nationally-recognized initiative that’s committed to supporting technology commercialization, entrepreneurship education, and the launch of technology companies. Rice Alliance has a partnership with three of Rice’s academic schools – the George R. Brown School of Engineering, the Wiess School of Natural Sciences and the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business in collaboration with the Vice Provost and the Office of Research. Brad Burke, Rice Alliance’s managing director, sat down for a Q&A with Startup Houston.
*Questions and answers have been edited for grammar and brevity.
Startup Houston: If you had to give a pitch for Rice Alliance, what would you say?
Brad Burke: The Rice Alliance is Rice University’s entrepreneurship center. We’re a flag ship program, we’ve been recognized nationally, internationally, for the programs that we do. And some of our core flagship programs are venture capital conferences that we hold each year, in energy, and in IT and in life sciences. Those are open to everyone, to the public, where we’ll bring 50 – 60 startups together with 400 – 500 investors and other members of the audience, and if you had a startup that you were looking to get advice or funding [for], or if you were an investor and you were looking to invest in a company, or if you were an aspiring entrepreneur and you wanted to see, well, how in the world do startups pitch companies for investment – they’re great educational programs as well. And we’ve had over a thousand companies pitch at the venture capital forums over the history of the Rice Alliance, and they’ve raised over 2 billion dollars in funding. The Rice Business Plan competition is the world’s richest, largest, student-start up competition. It is for student startups; it’s not an academic business plan competition. So if you are a student launching your own company, it is a great venue for you to get funding, to get advice, to get help on your business strategy, and a great venue for networking. On average, I would say people walk away with 5 or more contacts they say will be valuable in helping their company succeed. We’ve had student competitors say they would not have been successful without the advice they got from them.
SH: The Rice Alliance Business Plan Competition is the most lucrative in the world. The winning team last year made [an internal] medical adhesive bandage… are the teams that typically come through all focused within medicine? How does that dynamic work out between different team players that you’ve observed in a team who might come from different backgrounds?
BB: We invite 42 universities to come on campus to compete live in front of investors. That’s out of an applicant pool of somewhere between 400 and 500. And of the 42 that we take in, they come from different industries. We had life science businesses, we had energy and clean tech businesses and we had IT businesses. Within a given team, they tend to be multi-disciplinary teams, the ones that tend to be the most successful. Our competition is for graduate level students, so they tend to have some business MBA students on the team, and they tend to have some PhD students in engineering or science. Typically, those teams fare better than a team that’s all business or all engineering or science, historically. Anecdotally, we know that that’s been the case.
SH: Can you give a rundown of all the specific competitions besides the Rice Business Plan?
BB: The competitions begin in the fall with the Undergrad Elevator Pitch competition. That’s open to any Rice undergraduate students, and there’s cash prizes involved, where students present their 90 second elevator pitch for their concept. In the spring, we have the Rice Undergraduate Venture Challenge, which is the undergraduate business plan competition. The winners of that are accepted automatically invited to participate in the OwlSpark Accelerator in the summer. Those are the two cornerstones at the undergraduate level for Rice students. At the graduate level, we have the Owl Open in the Spring, and the Owl Open is open to all Rice graduate students from any part of campus. And the winner of the Owl Open is invited to participate as one of the Rice teams at the Rice Business Plan competition. And the top three teams are invited to participate in the Owlspark Accelerator.
SH: Is Rice Alliance associated with Owlspark? If so, how?
BB: We are. Owlspark is a joint program of The Rice Alliance and the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership. So our two organization oversee and are responsible for the success of the Owlspark Accelerator program.
SH: What do you understand as the difference between entering a competition Rice Alliance program or OwlSpark, as opposed to doing something on Kickstarter?
BB: I would say first that it’s not an either-or. Kickstarter, as a crowdfunding platform, is a good platform for certain types of businesses, and some of the businesses that participate in OwlSpark may very well participate in programs and crowdsourcing platforms like that. So, it’s not an either-or. And usually, teams can use as much help from as many different sources as they can get. So, the more the better. Specifically though, with Owlspark, I mean I think what the benefit of the Owlspark Accelerator and Accelerator programs like that are that you’re going to in a very intense, compressed period of time, be able to advance your strategy, your understanding of the market, your understanding of customers, your ability to go to market faster, than you would have if you didn’t do that. And also, you’re going to get connected to a lot of additional both angel investors and capital investors that can provide you both advice and funding faster and better than if you didn’t do that.
SH: What would you say, for you personally, is the most interesting, or the most important or valuable lesson you’ve learned from being engaged with Rice Alliance over the years?
BB: I didn’t understand how easy it is to network. You always hear networking is important, but I didn’t understand really how easy it is, and it’s much easier than people think, it’s partly easier because of tools like LinkedIn, but the intra-entreupenuship community in Houston is in some ways a very small community, and a tightly knit community, and there’s always somebody who knows somebody at the company or in a place that you need. Students may not understand how easy it is for them, as student[s], to go meet and talk to somebody at any company they want to. I think that window closes a little bit when you graduate. Now, Rice alums would be glad to help other Rice alums, probably in the same way. But there’s this – I don’t know what the right word is…
SH: The student card.
BB: It’s a student card that you get and if you’re interested in learning about almost anything or talking to people, you have a student card that can get you in the door almost anywhere, and people will help you. Students should play that card.
SH: Is there anything you would like to add?
BB: Those entrepreneurs in the community who have an interest in those three sectors – life science, IT, energy or clean tech, we do have the three events that are open to either entrepreneurs who want to present, or just anyone who wants to participate in those, as well as the business plan competition is open to the general public as well. I get that question as well, a lot. People ask me, “Oh, well can I come out and watch?” Absolutely. It is a graduate student competition. But some of the best pitches that I’ve ever seen are actually at the Rice Business Plan competition, not at these venture startup events, because the students have spent the time to really hone and fine-tune their presentation, as well as having a strong technology underpin for that. In fact, there have been a number of companies who were first met by the Houston community at the business plan competition, and then an investor saw them and liked them, and now the company’s here in Houston. They moved here, they got investment funding here. So it’s been really rewarding to see. In general, I’d say that Houston is the right place, the right time for entrepreneurs. It is a very entrepreneurial friendly city, [the] business climate’s great, there’s a great support system, great entrepreneurial ecosystem here to support entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs like to support other entrepreneurs. If one person’s successful, they want to be part of having other people [succeed]. It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur in Houston.