Innovation Fellows

The Rice Innovation Fellows program trains Ph.D. students and postdocs to translate research into real-world impact.

We bring the brightest minds from Rice’s research labs to learn, apply, and accelerate their knowledge of translating research into breakthrough solutions to real-world problems. Through the Rice Innovation Fellows, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, along with Rice’s Office of Innovation, supports select Ph.D. students and postdocs to spend additional research time focusing on the practical aspects of applying their research to industry needs.


Rice Innovation Fellows 2024 Cohort

Barclay Jumet

Department: Mechanical Engineering

I am a PhD candidate in the department of mechanical engineering, working under Prof. Dan Preston. In his lab, I specialize in fluid mechanics and thermal systems. I focus on developing wearable technologies made solely from textiles and fluids, enabling smart wearables without any need for unwashable and cumbersome electronics. Some fluidic textiles that I have developed thus far include (i) devices with multiple modalities of haptic (touch-based) feedback integrated, (ii) devices that can provide post-operative rehabilitation, physical rehabilitation, and mechanical assistance to the user, and (iii) devices that are able to help regulate the body temperature (to make the user warmer or cooler).

Tianshu Zhai

Department: Materials Science and NanoEngineering

I’m Tianshu Zhai (Sean), a passionate materials scientist and dedicated Ph.D. student on a journey to unravel the secrets of materials. When I’m not immersed in the world of research, you’ll find me breaking a sweat in the gym, where my love for weightlifting fuels my physical and mental well-being. I’m a dog person and I share my space with a delightful companion, a chubby pug named Planck, who adds joy and laughter to my daily life. Beyond my academic pursuits, I have a keen interest in thermal management, exploring ways to control heat for innovative applications. We specialize in hexagonal boron nitride (hBN), a layered insulating material known for its excellent thermal conductivity, mechanical protection and chemical stability. Our technological innovation involves incorporating assistive chemicals into industrial ball-milling, resulting in nanosheets of hexagonal boron nitride. This chemical addition facilitates unique capabilities such as exfoliation and functionalization of hBN powders. These capabilities are crucial for manufacturing hBN-based thermal interface materials and protective coating, ensuring maximum productivity, reliability, and technical capabilities.

Zachary Kingston

Department: Computer Science

ZK is a postdoctoral research associate and lab manager for the Kavraki Lab in the Computer Science department at Rice, working under the direction of Dr. Lydia Kavraki, a pioneer in the field of robot motion planning. During his Ph.D., ZK was funded by a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship and worked with the Robonaut 2 team at NASA JSC to develop algorithms that enable complex robots to autonomously move under task constraints. He is currently collaborating with Wil Thomason on a novel approach to high-performance, low-cost robot motion planning. Their approach provides orders-of-magnitude planning performance improvements over state-of-the-art methods without requiring new or high-power computational hardware, dramatically improving robot intelligence and decision making for embodied systems.

Soobin Cho

Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering

Hello, I’m Soobin Cho, co-founder of Duromem. We’re dedicated to pioneering sustainable water purification by offering efficient and affordable solutions. Our key innovation is the Dual-Role Electrically Conductive Membrane, engineered to improve existing water treatment systems and eliminate the challenges of membrane fouling.

Sara Abouelniaj

Department: Material Science and Nanoengineering

I am Sara Abouelniaj, returning from a fulfilling two-year tenure in the pharmaceutical industry to embark on a journey toward a Ph.D. in Material Science and Nanoengineering. I hold an MBA earned in 2019, complementing my earlier academic achievements with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemical Sciences attained in 2018 We specialize in catering to scientists engaged in TEM or cryo-EM research who require grids for their screening procedures. Our flagship service involves expertly coating grids with the highly coveted monolayer graphene. Furthermore, we are actively exploring opportunities to diversify our range of grid types and expand the spectrum of services we offer.

Alisha Menon

Department: Electrical Engineering

Alisha Menon is founding a medical device startup developing wireless, AI-enabled patient monitoring devices for both remote and in-hospital settings, starting with the neonatal ICU for preterm babies. She completed her Ph.D. in 2022 in Electrical Engineering & Computer science at University of California: Berkeley in Professor Jan Rabaey’s research group after receiving her B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2018.

Alisha’s research explores integrated circuits for in-sensor processing, learning and recognition of physiological signals, states and processes. She focuses on designing hardware for machine learning specifically for biosignals, enabling multi-layer feedback systems with complex intelligence, shown with a multi-modal neural prosthetic in her doctoral thesis. During her Ph.D., she led an interdisciplinary team with over 11 undergraduate/masters students to delve into various projects under this topic, resulting in 7 first-author publications. For her work, she was awarded the NSF Fellowship, UC Berkeley Fellowship, UC Berkeley Outstanding Graduate Mentor Award (first awardee from the college of engineering), IEEE BioX Data Science and Engineering in Medicine and Biology Fellowship, and Rising Star in EECS.

Outside of research, Alisha was a hardware engineer intern with CTRL-Labs in 2018 (acquired by Meta in 2019) and with Apple in 2021 where she worked on an energy-efficient machine learning architecture for a novel sensor application. Her current work on a medical device startup, Aurelia Vitals, aims to bring innovations in wireless biosensors and biosignal analytics to real-time patient monitoring. This work is being done in collaboration with the Texas Medical Center and Rice University, with support from NSF and the Southwest Pediatric Device Consortium.

Wil Thomason

Department: Computer Science

Wil Thomason is a CRA Computing Innovation postdoctoral fellow in the Kavraki Lab at Rice University. He completed his Ph.D. in computer science at Cornell University in 2021, focused on long-horizon robot planning. His postdoctoral research in the Kavraki Lab has addressed a variety of problems in robot planning, with a particular interest in efficient planning under uncertainty, neuro-symbolic planning methods, and hardware-accelerated planning.

He is currently collaborating with fellow postdoctoral researcher Zachary Kingston on a novel approach to high-performance, low-cost robot motion planning. Their approach provides orders-of-magnitude planning performance improvements over state-of-the-art methods without requiring new or high-power computational hardware, dramatically improving robot intelligence and decision making for embodied systems.

Jeremy Daum

Department: Materials Science and Nanoengineering

I am PhD candidate at Rice in the Materials Science department. I have worked in three industries ranging from polymers to biomedical devices. My project is a novel production method to create photocatalysts that can cheaply and efficiently absorb and degrade per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) with UV light at room temperature in a single, continuous stream.

Jonathan Montes

Department: Bioengineering

My name is Jonathan Montes. I am a third year Bioengineering Ph.D. in the Luan Laboratory of Integrative Neural Interface. My research interests focus on combating sensory depriving and neurodegenerative diseases utilizing highly selective neuromodulation. I hope to take everything I learn from Rice to develop a start-up focused on combining neuromodulation with therapies to assist individuals with learning disabilities.

Our product utilizes advancements in microfabrication to create ultraflexible high electrode density neural probes. These modified probes have previously demonstrated extraordinary recording and stimulation capabilities in a multitude of chronic studies. The improved neural selectivity afforded by our design can be leveraged in concentrated deep brain regions to induce a wide range of specific brain stimulation. Targeting the lateral geniculate nucleus we can develop a visual prosthetic capable of returning vision to individuals afflicted by major ophthalmic conditions such as glaucoma.

Andrew (AJ) Walters

Department: Bioengineering

I am a bioengineer positioned at the nexus of synthetic biology, cell engineering, immunology, and cell therapy. My research in the labs of Dr. Caleb Bashor (Rice U. Dept. of Bioengineering) and Dr. Scott Olson (UTHealth Houston McGovern Medical School Dept. of Pediatric Surgery) aims to make cell therapies more effective and accessible. Entrepreneurship has been a significant part of my training arc, with the Innovation Fellowship facilitating my next step to fusing my scientific and business training. I have big goals for the future, and approach them with the mantra “life will find a way” from Jurassic Park.

I am working on bringing the advances in genetic engineering and synthetic biology to mesenchymal stem/stromal cell (MSC) based cell therapy with the ultimate goal of building an accessible allogenic cell therapy that can be deployed across a wide range of inflammation disorders. Eventually this approach could be applied to other indications, such as cancer.

The Innovation Fellows program combines dedicated time and space at Lilie with personalized mentorship and equity-free funding to catalyze the next generation of world-changing, scientist-led companies.

  • For the student/postdoc’s supervisor/PI:
    • $10,000 for the PI’s lab to offset graduate student/postdoc stipends
  • For the student/postdoc participants:
    • $10,000 in translational research funding for the fellow’s project
    • Weekly startup-focused training and personalized mentorship from industry experts, startup founders, and investors
    • Free dedicated co-working space at Lilie
    • One day per week for 12 months to focus on translating research

As one of the top research universities in the world and the home of the #1 Ranked Entrepreneurship program in the country, Rice is positioned to address the world’s challenges in dealing with climate change and the energy transition, creating cutting-edge medical devices and therapeutics, discovering new materials and applications, and advancing computer science to influence bits and atoms. You will follow in the footsteps of other academic entrepreneurs from Rice, whether 3D printing blood tissues like Volumetric, electrifying chemical manufacturing like Syzygy, or developing cutting-edge AI systems like Rebellion Photonics.


The fellowship is open to current Ph.D. students and postdocs at Rice University. Candidates from all Rice Engineering and Science-related disciplines are encouraged to apply. If not a U.S. citizen, the Fellow needs to be on a visa appropriate for a student or Rice employee for the duration of the fellowship (typically 12 months). The Fellow needs to be working on university research at Rice, with a faculty PI or advisor providing a Letter of Support for their selection. Applications for the 2024 Innovation Fellows cohort are closed. Applications for the next cohort are expected to open in September, 2024.

How it Works:

  • With a supportive PI, the Innovation Fellows program will ‘buy out’ one day per week of your time from the research lab, so you have the bandwidth to focus on commercialization efforts.
  • The Innovation Fellows program will provide funding to your PI to assist with covering the cost of your time out of the lab.
  • In addition, the Innovation Fellows program provides you with milestone-based, equity-free funding for your translational research to fuel your progress.
  • Innovation Fellows will receive weekly training and personalized mentorship from industry experts, fellow science-backed startup founders, and investors.
  • You will work side by side with the Lilie team in our space, surrounded by peers from other graduate degree programs to explore, analyze, and accelerate your research.

The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is the home for everything entrepreneurship and innovation at Rice University. As the Center for Entrepreneurship for the campus, Lilie runs courses and co-curricular programs to help develop students, researchers, faculty, and alums into entrepreneurs for life.

Lilie runs the Innovation Fellows program, supported by President Reggie Desroches and the Office of Innovation, led by the Vice President for Innovation Paul Cherukuri, while partnering with organizations like the Technology Transfer Office and research institutes from around campus like the Institute for Bioengineering and the Biosciences, The Ken Kennedy Institute, the Smalley Curl Institute, and the Welch Institute.