The OWLs - 20 Years of Innovating and Disrupting with the RBPC

In 2010, venture capital investor Robert Winter, Rice BSEE 1979, sat in the audience of the Rice Business Plan Competition (RBPC) and his ears perked up. As a judge at the annual event, the world’s largest and richest graduate-level student startup competition, Winter was tasked with evaluating startups and helping to decide on a winner.

That year, he was especially impressed with a team that attached RFID tags to surgical equipment and sponges to solve the growing problem of equipment left inside patients during surgery. The startup was bought for millions of dollars by a major pharmaceutical company. Winter wanted to find a way to marry the cutting-edge startups he was seeing at the RBPC with real capital and mentors and advisors.

“It was a eureka moment,” says Winter, co-founder and managing director of the daVinci Capital Group. Over the years, Winter has invested in and participated in creating over 45 venture deals, now with a total value creation estimated at over $400 billion dollars.

Sitting beside him that day at the RBPC was fellow judge and entrepreneur Susan Hardin, who shared the same vision. Over the following year, the two created an investment structure to bring their vision to life. In 2011, at a time when angel investing was a fairly new concept, The OWL Investment Group (The OWLs) was born.

Greg Price, chief financial officer of healthcare tech startup Decisio Health, Inc. and now a co-managing member of The OWLs, also joined the group early on after serving as a RBPC judge for years.

High returns

The group of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and professionals like lawyers invest in RBPC finalists. Now, 10 years later, it’s grown from around a dozen original members to nearly 60 active members who participate in their spare time.

The OWLs have invested nearly $4 million in over a dozen companies, with members also serving as advisors and mentors to burgeoning companies. Two of the companies the group has invested in have exited.

When wound healing life science company Adhesys Medical was acquired, it earned the group seven times the original investment. Hyliion, known as the Tesla for trucks, went public garnering over 35 times the original investment in returns (and the first RBPC competitor to have a public stock offering).


“I’ve always been excited about startups,” says Winter, a successful 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley. “I find founders’ energy and passion, and their problem-solving in innovative and disruptive ways with solid economics behind it, to be exhilarating.”

Robert Winter

Robert Winter
Innovating and disrupting

The OWLs members arrive at the RBPC each year excited and energized to listen to student pitches and prepared to find an innovative, disruptive startup to invest in.

“Rice Business has this great reputation,” says Price. Adds Winter, “with investment opportunities coming out of university environments, you see a lot of diversity.”

At the business plan competition, “we always pick the best deal,” Price says. “When I listen to an elevator pitch, I can tell you if the idea is going to work or not work. These individuals at RBPC challenge us. They have great ideas and they’re very confident.”

The OWLs make an initial investment in an RBPC startup, and then often subsequent investments in the company as well. A majority of deals the group has invested in also draw interest from well-known venture capital firms.

Recent innovative RBPC companies The OWLs have invested in include Neurable, which is developing technology that can be controlled by thoughts, and Gecko Robotics, a start-up that makes robots that inspect and maintain equipment for the power plant, oil and process-related industries.

The OWLs have invested $1.25 million in Neurable and $300,000 in Gecko Robotics. The group also recently invested $100,000 in female-led fintech company Ozé, which targets small businesses in Africa.

In 2020, the RBPC celebrated its twentieth year. Over the years, the competition has grown from nine teams competing for $10,000 in prize money in 2001, to 42 teams from across the globe competing for more than $1.5 million in cash and prizes. 

RBPC past competitors have raised over $2.675 billion in funding, and 237 past participants have gone on to successfully launch their businesses and are still in business today. Thirty-five participating teams have had successful exits.

An ongoing relationship

As The OWLs listen to RBPC teams each year, the key question is whether an investment will garner returns. For startups, having a cohesive team is also important. A team that’s thoughtful and passionate can morph and pivot as they bring a product to marketplace, Winter says.

“We want to see a team that works well together,” he says. But the number one ingredient for a successful start-up is to be in the right market at the right time.”

During the RBPC, The OWLs select a handful of teams they’re interested in early on and then spend the duration of the competition getting to know the teams and their financials, including shareholder value. The companies that the group ultimately chooses to support are ones that members truly care about.

“There’s a mutual passion for what we’re trying to create together,” says Winter. “And once we make an investment, we continue that relationship. We spend a lot of time coaching entrepreneurs. We take our roles very seriously, and it’s also a lot of fun.”

There’s a creative energy and excitement at the business plan competition, Winter and Price say, and The OWLs see Rice as a crucial hub where successful and life-changing startups are be born.

Getting involved

In the coming years, the OWLs have set their sights on growing their investment portfolio to 18+ companies, and Winter is considering raising a small angel investor fund that would invest in companies alongside the group’s current activity. The ultimate goal is for Houston to join the ranks of other startup investment hubs like Silicon Valley.

For sophisticated venture capital investors interested in getting involved, founders caution that the group’s work is not for the faint of heart. Investors must prepare for losses, despite the opportunity for high returns. Word of mouth is the best way to get involved, says Winter, and having specific skills or knowledge of a certain market helps.

“You have to be willing to take risk,” says Winter. “There’s also a certain level of action involved for all our members,” so be prepared to participate. “It’s not a ‘one and done,’” adds Price. “Decisions are made every day about what we’ll continue to fund.”

Winter and Price advise budding entrepreneurs to start by finding a significant problem that’s tough to solve, then figure out a creative, innovative, and disruptive way to solve it. Surround yourself with the best people, they say, be passionate and have integrity. When asked, know your market deeply, and product or service’s path to monetization.

“We’re looking for something that is disruptive,” says Price, “and we need to know this is a real business that has a real outcome.”