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Thursday, November 30, 2023 — Houston, TX

Owls dive into the startup world

Charlotte Heeley / Thresher

By Jahnavi Mahajan     9/13/22 11:43pm

Pressed to picture where the big companies in Silicon Valley started, one could imagine a badly-lit dorm room with a copious number of monitors and red, green and blue LED lights. And they may not be wrong. For many Rice alumni and graduate students involved in the startup world, their entrepreneurial careers began at Rice.

Samuel Spitz (Rice ‘21), co-founder and CEO of Gently, a resale clothing company, said one of the biggest stories of his career was securing his first investor in the midst of graduating from Rice. Spitz said he had his cap and gown on, just about to get to the field, when he received an email from Jason Calacanis, a notable angel investor, saying he would invest six figures in Gently.

“As I am getting out to see my co-founder for the first time in person after working together for several months, and on the day of graduation, we found out that arguably the highest profile angel investor in the world was going to invest six figures into the company we had started eight weeks before. That was insane,” Spitz said.

Spitz said he was formally introduced to the world of entrepreneurship in his second semester freshman year when took a class called “Design Thinking” with Hesam Panahi, a Rice lecturer and the Strategic Initiatives and Programs director for Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“I didn’t think I could be a founder. I was smart enough to get into Rice but I wasn’t a savant,” Spitz said. “But taking the class with [Panahi], I saw pretty quickly … that I was good at figuring out the problems that people are having in the world and [creating] a solution we could bring to them.”

Panahi, who said he continues to teach the same design thinking class, stresses the importance of networking among Rice alumni and entrepreneurs.

“[Lilie Lab is] helping orchestrate these connections that happen inside and outside of the classrooms — and a lot of that happens with Rice alums,” Panahi said. “Knowing that there is this massive Rice network of founders, investors and others in the community that are doing great things that if you send them an email or message, there is a high probability that they’ll respond and be willing to take a call.”

Rosa Selenia Guerra Resendez, founder of QuetzalBio, is a fifth year Ph.D. student at the department of Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology. According to Resendez, QuetzalBio is working to develop new gene control tools. 

“[QuetzalBio is] developing new molecular tools for genetic and epigenetic control of genes that are linked to cancer or to other malignancies of T-cells,” Resendez said. 

Resendez said that her motivation to work in startups ever since starting her Ph.D. was to help bridge the gap between what is done at the bench and at the bedside — that is, formulate treatments for patients.

“We are coming to an era where the academics are thinking ‘we cannot leave this [discovery] in paper. We have to get it to the general population,’” Resendez said.

Bo Wang, founder of Aqualight Materials, a company creating patents to decontaminate water systems, is another fifth year Ph.D. candidate at the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Wang said that being a part of the first cohort of the Rice Innovation fellows that opened to graduate students helped a lot.

“We are graduate students in the engineering and science departments. We spend a lot of time in the lab and we don’t necessarily know how to do business,” Wang said. “But with the Rice Innovation Fellows and Lilie Lab, we got a platform to learn and collaborate and partner with founders in Houston and outside in the US.”

Kyle Judah, executive director of Lilie said that entrepreneurship provides a chance for students, who are often directed by their professors or bosses, to finally have full agency over a task.

“The generation of students that we’re seeing at Rice now — they’re excited, they’re fired up, and more importantly they want to make an impact. There’s absolutely no better time than now and no better place than here to get started on that journey,” Judah said.

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