Rice aims to spur more Houston startups

HOUSTON – Rice University wants to bring Houston the same Cambrian explosion of startup companies that began in Palo Alto and Boston decades ago – but for oil and gas, a Rice official said Wednesday.

“Twenty-five years ago, there were only a few universities that had an interest in commercializing startup companies,” Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, said during the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston. “But there’s a keen interest today among researchers and faculty at Rice and other universities to support the launch of new companies, and not just do research in class.”

Since the late 1990s, a growing circle at Rice has wanted to bolster innovation in Houston the same way Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have acted as catalysts for new technology companies over many decades.

Rice doesn’t provide funding for startups like Stanford’s in-house technology development budget does, but it plays a match-maker role between young companies and investors through its annual Energy Venture Forum, where upstart business owners can make a pitch to well-heeled audiences.

“Over the last 12 years we’ve had 1,000 companies from all over the country come and present,” he said. “The one common denominator is they all need funding. The vision was for Rice to step up to a leadership role for the launch of technology companies in the Houston region.”

Rice has spun out about three to four companies per year for the last decade, including Houston-based ceramic proppant manufacturer Oxane Materials, which spun out of the university in 2002 and has collected more than $100 million in investments from private investors. In all, it has spun out about 40 companies since its entrepreneurial programs began in earnest.

The Houston institution, he said, is still far behind Stanford and MIT in the number of startups that have emerged from its programs, but pound for pound, Rice is making strides. Rice beats Stanford and MIT when one compares the number of startups that have emerged from Rice for every $100 million the institutions receive in research funding, he said.

“Stanford and MIT are much bigger than Rice” with bigger research budgets, he said. “The more research you do, the more you have innovations and the more technology you produce, so if you wanted to normalize the size of the university, you should take the number of startups you spun out and divide by your research funding. Guess what, we found out that Rice is ahead of a number of universities that we all look up to.”