Burke said there were many strong life sciences teams applying for this year's competition; 18 teams were accepted for the life sciences category, up from 12 last year. The other categories are information technology/Web/mobile; energy/clean technology/sustainability; and other.
"This competition can be, in some ways, life changing for the teams and the students who come here," Burke said.
Cho and Senter have dreamed of getting into the Rice Business Plan Competition since they first enrolled in college, maybe earlier. Cho volunteered at last year's event to determine the caliber of teams competing and what type of questions judges might ask.
Sensytec's smart cement was created by Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan, a professor at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. He approached the students for help in commercializing his product.
"We see Rice as a really great chance to start working with investors in the Houston area," Senter said.
Kemal Anbarci, managing executive of Chevron Technology Ventures, the venture capital arm of Chevron Corp., likes to judge the event because it keeps him up-to-date on new technology trends.
"It's a glimpse to the future," he said. "We need to see what's coming our way."
Chevron Technology Ventures hasn't invested in a business during the competition because the companies are too young. It has, however, invested after maturation. The competition is a good opportunity for Anbarci to provide feedback on how companies could one day become a supplier for Chevron or receive future financing from the company.
In the past 17 years, Chevron has made direct investments in more than 70 companies. It has also invested in 17 venture funds that invest on behalf of Chevron. Chevron currently has about 35 active investments, including four in the Houston area.
With stubbornly low oil prices hurting the industry, Anbarci is specifically seeking companies that can become "field ready in the next 18 months" instead of companies that won't benefit Chevron for another five years.
Rice University has two teams competing in the event: Arovia and Skylark Wireless.
Alexander Wesley and Jake Herzig, both in the university's MBA program, are competing with Arovia. The company's product is called SPUD, short for Spontaneous Pop-Up Display.
"We identified that there's a problem," Wesley said. "You either have a screen that's portable or a screen that's large."
So they created a 24-inch screen that collapses to the size of a paperback book. It can connect wirelessly or with a wire to smartphones and computers. And it can duplicate what's being seen on the smaller screen or can be used side-by-side, offering dual screens to work from.
They are looking forward to networking and possibly raising money at the competition. And in early summer, they will launch a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise money and sell the product to consumers.
Ryan Guerra and Clayton Shepard, doctoral students in electrical engineering, are with Skylark Wireless. The company created a wireless product that gets high-speed Internet to rural homes, many of which don't have reliable cable connections.
Through unused broadcast-television frequencies, Skylark can send Internet to a box installed at rural houses. The residents can then use this for their own personal Internet. Skylark can currently send Internet to homes more than 10 miles from its base station. One day, it hopes to have a range of 50 miles.
Guerra and Shepard have been funding the company by designing wireless equipment for other companies on the side. They need financing to begin a pilot program at the end of this year.
"I think this is really going to put us on the map," Guerra said. "This is an enormous competition. A great opportunity for us."