A Rice undergraduate team created an educational toy for children to learn about computer processing and took home the $6,000 best undergraduate team prize from the inaugural Rice Launch Challenge.

Team HexIO, made up of Lovett College junior Vi Nguyen, Hanszen College freshman Achal Srinivasan and Brown College sophomores Andrew Maust, Nishant Verma, Johan Widmann and Nicole Mitchell, also won the best undergraduate team prize in the entrepreneurship competition on March 28.

“Our toy is made of modular plastic blocks that connect using magnets,” Maust said. “Inside each block is a boolean logic gate, one of the smallest parts in a computer and what processes signals of zeroes and ones.”

Rice Launch, which was sponsored by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, combines two existing entrepreneurship competitions, Owl Spark and Owl Open, and has a larger combined total prize purse of $30,000, to be divided among five winning teams of undergraduate, graduate, and alumni entrepreneurs.

Maust said HexIO will use the $6,000 to market their kickstarter campaign.

Nguyen said she was inspired to work on the HexIO team because of her background in computer science.

“I’m really passionate about getting other people into and excited about STEM, which I think HexIO can do,” Nguyen said.

Maust said HexIO intends to make the toy available to children from low-income families.

“Our product is intentionally designed to be gender neutral, and if we are able to succeed as a company, we plan to donate kits to lower [socioeconomic status] schools, where we can give the gift of this knowledge to more students,” Maust said. “There’s a real potential for us to inspire and arm kids with real knowledge, no matter their background.”

Lovett junior Madeleine Pelzel and Brown junior Harrison Lin also participated in the competition, but did not win a cash prize. Pelzel and Lin said their idea, designRice, is a student-run product design firm to help students market and sell the prototypes they create. 

“designRice will be the nation’s first student-run product design firm — an educational, small-business venture that teaches students entrepreneurship and design firsthand,” Pelzel and Lin said. “We want to create a platform through which students can design, manufacture, market and sell amazing things that address specific issues or concerns.”

Pelzel and Lin said the specific prize reserved for undergraduate teams allowed them to present their idea alongside with graduate students and alumni.

“We appreciated that there was a prize reserved for undergraduate teams,” Pelzel and Lin said. “Otherwise, we don’t think we could’ve competed with these other grad student and Ph.D teams that already have hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, as well as super-developed technologies.”

Maust said that he admired the work of designRice.

“I was especially excited for the other undergraduate team who pitched the idea of an on-campus student-run product design studio,” Maust said. “I really hope that the Rice administration will work with them to make this idea a reality.”

Judges selected nine finalists, including two undergraduate, five graduate and two alumni teams according to Entrepreneurship Program Manager Caitlin Bolanos. Each team had five minutes to present and then another five minutes to field questions from judges.

LILIE Director Abby Larson said the Rice Launch Challenge was part of LILIE’s efforts to support entrepreneurship.

“The Rice Launch Challenge highlighted the ingenuity of our students and alumni in fields ranging from architecture to engineering and health,” Larson said. “We look forward to continuing to support these teams, as well as other students and alumni with learning opportunities including courses, coaching and mentor networks, trainings, as well a physical space [the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship] on campus opening next year.”

Larson said that the lab is scheduled to open in the fall of 2017 and will be located on the first floor of the administrative building currently under construction next to the Allen Center.

This article was edited to correct Achal Srinivasan's college. He is at Hanszen, not Will Rice. A sentence regarding student ownership of intellectual property was also removed from the article. It incorrectly stated that Rice owns the intellectual rights to student projects carried out using on-campus resources; in reality, students own these rights.