OwlSpark

Have an idea for a tech-based business or social venture? Join the crowd.


From classes in creative entrepreneurship to startup camps, Rice's wide-open culture of entrepreneurship is growing. Last summer, OwlSpark, a business accelerator, broke new ground by helping a variety of upstart student venture take flight.

Words by Michael Hardy, Photos by Jeff Fitlow. Featured in Rice Magazine, Winter 2014

In the wake of a major natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami, the United Nations, the Red Cross and other agencies spring into action, coordinating relief efforts and setting up refugee camps. Food, water, tents and other emergency supplies are flown into the disaster area on wooden shipping pallets, which are then either burned or discarded. But what if those shipping pallets could be repurposed as flooring for refugee shelters? That’s the idea behind Emergency Core, a product invented by Rice architecture graduate students Scott Key and Sam Brisendine.

While tents are relatively cheap and easy to ship, flooring is both expensive and cumbersome. Currently, the vast majority of the world’s refugees live in shelters with minimal flooring — typically just a tarp on the ground. That leaves them exposed to flooding and cold weather. Every year, refugees die from hypothermia and water-borne diseases because they lack proper flooring.

“If you think about a refugee camp, many of them start at 20,000 people,” said Key. “It’s like a whole town that moves into a field that has no drainage, no sanitation. So when it rains, the rain doesn’t always go where you want it to.” Key and Brisendine began working on Emergency Core in summer 2012 while enrolled in the Rice Building Workshop, a class offered through the Rice School of Architecture. Their initial idea was to build a shipping crate containing everything needed by a refugee — a portable toilet, a water filtration system, a custom-designed tent, and other emergency supplies. The crate itself could then be broken down and turned into flooring.

Last January, they took a prototype of their design to the International Disaster Conference Expo in New Orleans, where they received a reality check from the disaster relief experts.

“We got some very blunt feedback, which was that nothing about this was very interesting except for one aspect, which is the idea of the shipping material becoming the flooring,” Key said. Going back to the drawing board, Key and Brisendine turned their attention to redesigning a common shipping pallet. They wanted a pallet that could be reused as flooring without any special tools or instructions. The pallets had to function just like any other pallet, yet transform into a floor. By April, they thought they finally had a product that would work.

“We knew we had something, but we didn’t know what to do with it,” Key said. “And that’s when we heard about OwlSpark.”

From Idea to Pitch Day

OwlSpark is a three month-long startup accelerator designed to help members of the Rice community (undergrads, grads and recent alumni) build new companies. Nine teams, including Emergency Core, made up the first cohort, each receiving living stipends and office space at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) and mentoring from Houston-area business leaders.

The inaugural program was led by undergraduates Veronica Saron ’14, Vivas Kumar ’14 and Ian Akash Morrison ’13 and MBA student Darren Clifford ’13, who served as the initial managing director.

“The idea for OwlSpark came after seeing the wonderful opportunities we have for entrepreneurship at Rice, but not seeing a place where entrepreneurs could work together day in and day out,” Clifford said. With support from Tom Kraft, who lectures at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business and directs the Technology Ventures Development program, and Bryan Hassin ’01, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL), Clifford recruited the other founding student members. Soon, OwlSpark was inviting its first class of studentfounded companies to spend the summer in business boot camp.

"I think students no longer expect to go to work for a big corporation and stay there for a long time. Their expectations for career paths have changed" - Brad Burke


The fledgling businesses ranged from Web-based startups (a search engine for stock investors, a gift registry and a social media website for inventors), to software companies (a medical information platform and an online K–12 curriculum), to a company that makes wearable devices that monitor your blood alcohol content. (See a description of the OwlSpark Class of 2013 here: ricemagazine.info/194.) In addition to weekly guest lectures by local businesspeople, each team was assigned a primary mentor who spent up to 10 hours a week teaching them the basics of setting up and running a business. The program culminated in August with a pitch day attended by more than 300 people, including local venture capitalists and angel investors.

The Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

OwlSpark is just one of a flurry of initiatives — student clubs, business plan competitions, new courses and more — launched at Rice in the past few years to encourage student entrepreneurship. At the center of these efforts is the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship (Rice Alliance), which since 2000 has provided expertise, networking and fundraising support to around 1,400 companies both inside and outside the Rice community. The word “alliance” in the title reflects the collaborative mission of bringing the engineering, natural sciences and business schools together to develop and launch a wide variety of businesses. Such programs, said Brad Burke, Rice Alliance managing director, cater to students’ growing interest in startups.

“In the last three or four years, there has been a great increase in entrepreneurial interest by Rice students,” Burke said. “I think students no longer expect to go to work for a big corporation and stay there for a long time. Their expectations for career paths have changed. Students like the idea of working for a small company and having an impact.”

RCEL is another key player of growing importance in what Burke calls Houston’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. RCEL was founded in 2009 thanks to a $15 million donation by venture capitalist and Rice alumnus John Doerr ’73 and his wife, Ann ’75, who support a focus on engineering leadership to help prepare future engineers to take on roles in solving pressing global problems.

“Lecturing about leadership and reading about leadership, those are absolutely good things to do, and Rice was doing that,” said Ned Thomas, dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering. “But we weren’t doing much hands-on leading. If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to first be a follower and be on a team.”

Kazimir Karwowski, a military veteran who served in Iraq and has taught leadership at West Point and MIT, was appointed executive director of RCEL last summer.

“The idea is to give them experiences as well as teaching and classes — the soft skills that engineers sometimes lack,” Karwowski said. “They’re smart, but they’re not effective, because they don’t have these additional skills.”

Students seem to be responding to this new focus on entrepreneurship. Last year, for example, students founded Rice Launch, which merged three smaller groups to “connect, energize and enable” both undergraduates and grad students interested in starting a business.

In 2012, the Rice Alliance launched a new graduate business plan competition called the Owl Open. The winner of the Owl Open wins a spot to represent Rice University and compete against other universities in the annual Rice Business Plan Competition (RBPC), which boasts $1.5 million in prizes and is billed as “the world’s richest and largest” of its kind.

The Princeton Review recently ranked the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business the fourth-best graduate business school in the country for entrepreneurship. And according to Burke, Rice created more startup businesses over 10 years per dollar of research funding than Stanford, Harvard or MIT. A key tenet of this movement is that entrepreneurship isn’t just for business students. According to Rice Provost George McLendon, it’s an increasingly necessary skill in today’s job market regardless of major.

“Many, many people involved in the 21st-century economy — some studies say more than 50 percent — will spend some part of their time working as an independent agent, rather than working for a large corporation,” McLendon said. “Many of our own smartest and most driven students are passionate about creating their own contributions to the world through their own entrepreneurial activities rather than in a more traditional job format.”

"Lecturing about leadership and reading about leadership, those are absolutely good things to do, and Rice was doing that, but ... if you want to be a leader, you've got to first be a follower and be on a team."- Ned Thomas


Venture Variety

McLendon could have been referring to Andrew Amis ’14, a senior double majoring in chemical engineering and history. Amis, along with Ernest Chan ’15 and Lynn Gai ’15, founded Village Innovators, the only non-profit company that participated in the inaugural OwlSpark program.

The company was created to teach students how to build machines like wind turbines, zeroelectricity refrigerators, water purifiers and other technologies that would then help improve life in remote villages around the world.

Amis spent the summer after his freshman year teaching and traveling in Tanzania. In African school rooms, he would lead his students through simple science experiments using inexpensive equipment such as plastic water bottles instead of beakers. The students enjoyed the experiments so much that Amis wanted to come back and expand the project to help the students create useful technologies using readily available materials in their village.

Last summer, team member Mingming Jiang ’14 traveled to Elburgon, a village in Kenya, to conduct the company’s first project. With Jiang’s help, a school of Kenyan teenagers assembled a wind turbine out of local materials, which they mounted to a 30-foot tree trunk. The turbine currently produces enough electricity to power several computers and lights; there are plans to begin charging a small fee to allow villagers to charge their cell phones at the turbine. Although the village is wired to the country’s electrical grid, the electricity is too expensive for all but the wealthiest residents. “The best part of the summer was when we saw that wind turbine go up in Kenya,” Amis said. “We bonded as a team and saw our work pan out in beautiful form.”

Amis slipped out of OwlSpark for three weeks to go to Uganda to pilot similar projects and build support for the program. The nonprofit’s next steps include a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, reaching out to Peace Corps volunteers and prototyping new designs.

“Running a nonprofit requires the same skills as running a modern company,” Amis said. “Innovation is key to social change in the nonprofit world, and startup accelerators can incubate that potential.”

ParkiT, another OwlSpark startup, illustrated how Rice’s growing entrepreneurial infrastructure can move a creative business idea forward. Last spring, electrical engineering majors Xin Huang ’16, Jennifer Ding ’15 and two other students participated in 3-Day Startup, a Rice student event that gives teams 72 hours to come up with a new company from scratch.

"Almost every week there was a different mentor or professional from the Houston area who came and talked with us about how to build a startup."- Xin Huang


Huang’s team focused on an everyday headache for drivers — finding a parking spot. They had noticed that the electronic signs displaying the number of open spaces at parking garages were frequently inaccurate. Most parking garages use sensor strips that register how many cars have entered and left a garage. However, sensor strips are imperfect and have to be recalibrated several times a week. Instead of sensors, ParkiT proposed using a combination of low-cost video cameras and new software to monitor parking garages for empty spots. Each camera would cost $50 and could monitor five or more spots to provide more data than the competition, Huang said.

The team of electrical and mechanical engineers received a crash course in business management. “Since we were all engineers, we didn’t really have a business background,” Huang said. “Almost every week there was a different mentor or professional from the Houston area who came and talked with us about how to build a startup.”

Since then, ParkiT has been upgrading their technology and software systems, networking and pitching in other business competitions. “We’re continuing to work with potential clients and hope to have our first customer soon,” Huang said.

Including Huang and his team, 27 of the 37 participants in the inaugural OwlSpark program had engineering backgrounds. “Entrepreneurs often come from the STEM fields,” said Clifford. “It’s much easier to teach business to engineers than to teach engineering to business students.”

Not all the OwlSpark teams were completely green when it came to business savvy. Medical Informatics Corp. was founded by three Rice MBA students — Emma Fauss ’13, Chris Raff ’13 and Jess Fenlon ’13. Their mission is to provide clinical decision support through new technologies for health care providers. The company’s software platform, Sickbay, was developed by co-founder and chief technology officer Craig Rusin, who is a professor at Baylor College of Medicine (and is married to Fauss). This OwlSpark leadership team brings years of experience in business, engineering, clinical medicine, sales and even venture capital to the table.

Fauss, who has a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering and is the company’s CEO, delivered the OwlSpark pitch. “At Medical Informatics,” she said, “we provide doctors and nurses with better, real-time information so that they can make better, faster decisions.” Sickbay is currently in use for clinical research projects and quality and safety projects at Texas Children’s Hospital by Rusin and other researchers.

“One of the great things about OwlSpark for us was that we were able to bring on three summer interns who are current Rice students,” said Fenlon. Post-Owl- Spark, the Medical Informatics Corp. team found shared office space in the Houston Area Translational Research Consortium, also located in the BioScience Research Collaborative. They began their Series A capital fundraising efforts in early 2014 and are seeking additional FDA regulatory approvals to move the platform from research to clinical practice.

“Everyone on our team,” Fenlon added, “is interested in continuing to support OwlSpark in any way that we can.”

OwlSpark's Future

In summer 2014, OwlSpark will be operated as a joint program of the Rice Alliance and RCEL. And although the four students who led the program will all have graduated by next summer, new student leaders are being recruited.

“Because the first year went so well, a lot more people know about the program, and there’s more buzz on campus,” said Saron. “I’ve had a lot of freshmen come up to me and tell me about the companies they’re starting.”

This spring, 10 prototypes of the Emergency Core will be deployed in an official pilot with the Refugee Housing Unit, an organization working with international relief agencies in refugee camps around the world. The pilot program will be partially funded by money the company received through Owl- Spark. (Each social venture participating in OwlSpark received seed grants of $17,000 from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.)

In his OwlSpark pitch, Key told the story of a 1 1/2-year-old boy named Mirwais who froze to death at a refugee camp outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012 because his family had to live directly on the ground. According to an article in The New York Times, Mirwais had just learned how to walk. “In disaster situations worldwide and in refugee camps, millions of families are forced to live, sleep and work directly on the ground,” he said. Stories like this are all too common, Key told the audience of potential investors, before explaining how Emergency Core could have saved Mirwais’ life. He ended his talk with a simple request: “Help us change the story.”