Interview with Brad Burke, Managing Director of the Rice Alliance

VC Staff


The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship is Rice University's flagship initiative devoted to supporting the creation of technology-based companies and the commercialization of new technologies in the Houston community and Southwest. The Rice Alliance started 2009 off right by winning two awards. The first was bestowed by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship recognizing the Rice Alliance as having the most Outstanding Specialty Entrepreneurship Program. The second came from the Greater Houston Partnership who named the Rice Alliance Houston's Greatest Economic Development Ally.

On February 12, 2009, the Rice Alliance is sponsoring the Nanotechnology and Sustainability Venture Forum, an event that promotes learning and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs, investment professionals, business executives and researchers serving the nanotech and sustainable industries. Here to tell us more about the Rice Alliance and some of its programs is Brad Burke, Managing Director of the Rice Alliance.

Brad, thank you for joining us today. First, we congratulate you on Rice Alliance's honor of recently being named the Outstanding Specialty Entrepreneurship Program and Houston's Greatest Economic Development Ally. Tell us about your program and share with us why you believe the Rice Alliance was given this distinction.

Our mission is to be a catalyst for Houston and the region's development as a leading center for technology and entrepreneurship. We capitalize ideas through education, guidance and connections. More than 600 companies have benefitted from our programs.

Our programs have several aspects including entrepreneurial outreach programs, for-credit and non-credit university courses and the Rice Business Plan Competition.

The flagships of our outreach programs are the Technology Venture Forums in the areas of energy, life sciences, information technology and nanotechnology. These one-day events profile new technology companies and offer them insights on industry trends and investing, plus the all-important aspect of networking with some of the particular sectors investors and industry leaders. These forums and our other programs including the Technology Entrepreneurship Workshops help to do the following:

  • educate students & entrepreneurs on the start-up process
  • bring VC's and other investors to campus
  • connect researchers with the business community
  • build upon the local entrepreneurial community
  • provide mentorship and advice to entrepreneurs
  • outreach to current students and alumni
  • connect with investor types

In regards to Rice's MBA Program, we were one of the first to require students to take entrepreneurship. The courses roughly follow a company life cycle giving students a full appreciation for what it takes to become an entrepreneur, develop a technology and develop it into a successful business.

Talk to us about the services that the Rice Alliance provides to its member companies.

We provide education, guidance and connections. We do this through many of the programs we just discussed. Some of the specific services include:

  • performing market assessments of new technologies
  • creating business plans
  • developing venture presentation & elevator pitches
  • acquiring seed funding
  • building management talent
  • networking to find investors and mentors
  • securing low-cost or pro-bono legal, accounting, office space and other support

Please share with us some of the Rice Alliance's success stories.

There have been more than 30 companies launched from technologies developed at Rice University. These include new methods of treating cancer without the harmful side effects of chemotherapy, advanced materials to enable more oil and gas to be produced from existing reservoirs and improved methods of diagnosing osteoporosis.

Next week, the Rice Alliance is hosting the Nanotechnology and Sustainability Venture Forum. What can participants expect to gain from this forum and also how can any of our interested readers get more information on attending the forum?

The forum is on Thursday, February 12th at the Jones School at Rice University. Attendees can expect to hear from renowned nanotechnology experts discussing today's real applications for nanotechnology in medicine, energy and material applications and how those technologies can change our lives. They can better understand the investment opportunities for nanotechnology companies in this current economy. Participants will also hear new technologies from approximately 20 nanotechnology companies.

The event is open to the public and cost is only $75 for those who pre-register and $85 for walk-ups. Interested parties can go to our website.

Friday, March 6, 2009 is the deadline to enter an application for the 2009 Rice Business Plan Competition, an event intended to simulate the real-world process of entrepreneurs soliciting start-up funds from early stage investors and venture capital firms. Will you tell our readers about this competition, what the prizes will be and how they can enter this event?

The three-day Rice Business Plan Competition is the largest and richest business plan competition in the world with 36 teams from around the world competing for $700,000 in cash and prizes.The GrandPrize package is worth over $350,000. Other special prizes will be awarded in Sustainability,Aerospace, Life Science,Energy, IT and Medical Devices. Sixty-two differentcash prizes will be awarded - with every team competing taking home at least one of these cash prizes.

Teams will present in the Feedback Round and Elevator Pitch Competition on Thursday. Starting with the Semi-Final Round on Friday, teams will be reduced to seven teams competing in the final round on Saturday for the Grand Prize. More than 170 judges, hailing from venture capital firms, early-stage and angel investors, to industry experts and business leaders will judge the competition.

The competition is April 16-18, and you can go to our website for more information on rules and how to enter to compete.

Last week, the Rice Alliance was one of the participants at the Annual Houston "TechConnection," an event that offers single point access to organizations and institutions, like the Rice Alliance, that are available to help emerging technology companies and local businesses succeed. What was the overall attitude like at the event regarding the economy? Did you come away with any reasons to feel optimistic about the near-term future for emerging technology companies?

Attendance was good at this year's event, up about 25%, which is good. It shows America's "can do and entrepreneurial" spirit is alive and well and that we will come out of this current economic downturn. Many investors will actually tell you that a down economy is the best time to start a new business. We are finding that good ideas are still getting funding. Investors are still looking for good business opportunities. As I mentioned before, we have had several companies who recently found investment funds. They have good ideas, good management teams and good business plans.

Over the past 6 years, the Rice Alliance has conducted more than 100 programs attended by over 23,000 individuals. Will you tell us about some of these programs?

These programs include our four venture forums, which we discussed earlier, in the areas of energy, life sciences, information technology and nanotechnology. These forums bring investors, industry experts and entrepreneurs together to share industry and investment trends and new technologies. Each of these events draws from 450 to 600 attendees.

We also offer a Technology Entrepreneurship Workshop, which has been sold out for the last three years. This two-day program takes budding entrepreneurs through the business start-up process from writing a business plan to intellectual property issues to securing funding. We also host a kick-off celebration that features a high-profile speaker, such as Michael Oxley, co-author of Sarbanes Oxley, or Bill Kurtis, award-winning journalist turned entrepreneur, and the Rice Business Plan Competition which draws more than 600 people to the awards banquet the final night of the competition.

What are you seeing on the capital raising front for your member companies?

While investors are definitely more cautious, every week we learn of new companies that have closed funding rounds. Most recently, a novel wind turbine company just closed its initial round of funding. The winner of this year's Rice Business Plan Competition is about to announce that it has received initial seed funding from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund.

How have the latest market conditions and economic turmoil affected your member companies and influenced your advisory strategy?

We suggest to companies that they minimize their cash burn rate in today's environment. But the truth is that this is always a good strategy, regardless of the economic conditions. We hear from investors that they have still have cash on the sidelines and continue to seek good investments opportunities.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs seeking capital in this environment?

We tell entrepreneurs that it is a great time to start a business. Most companies with outside investors are seeking an exit in 5-7 years. We anticipate that companies that are launched today will see a terrific environment for their exits in that timeframe.

We thank you, Brad, for your time and insight.

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