OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | Leadership & Faculty
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Leadership & Faculty

Our people.

Kerri Smith

Managing Director

Kerri has broad experience in developing strategies and programs that help maximize the success of technology-enabled startups. Her experience includes entrepreneurship education, startup acceleration, educational programming, technology licensing, and commercialization. For over 25 years, Kerri has provided leadership, oversight, and strategic direction for commercialization, entrepreneurship, community engagement, and technology transfer initiatives. Kerri joined Rice University in 2004 where she serves as Associate Managing Director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Managing Director of Rice University’s startup accelerator (OwlSpark), and Director of the NSF sponsored Innovation Corps program at Rice (I-Corps). In all positions, she plays a lead role in fostering collaboration, enabling entrepreneurship, and accelerating the formation of startups based on innovative technologies or scalable business ideas.

Jessica Fleenor

Assistant Managing Director

Jessica plans and executes strategic marketing, design and communication initiatives focused on events, programming, and visibility within Rice and the Houston communities. Dedicated to connecting entrepreneurs with the resources they need to launch and grow their businesses, Jessica co-founded Startup Career Fair, and Medulla, a branding and design agency providing tailored solutions to startups, nonprofits, and small businesses. With a background in nonprofit management and entrepreneurship, she brings more than seven years of experience in communications, design and project management. Jessica serves as the Assistant Managing Director of OwlSpark, Assistant Director for Programs at the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and is a nationally-certified Teaching Assistant for the NSF I-Corps program.

Kaz Karwowski

NSF I-Corps Instructor, Southwest I-Corps

Kaz comes to Rice from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he served as an engineering leadership specialist with the Bernard M. Gordon MIT Engineering Leadership Program, a post he took in July 2009 after leaving the military. Previously he served as a leadership instructor for the Army ROTC Program at MIT, operations sergeant of an 800-soldier infantry battalion in Iraq, and as the platoon sergeant of a 55-soldier infantry platoon also in Iraq. In addition, Kaz led soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He holds a Bachelor’s degree and a Graduate Degree from Harvard University.

Hesam Panahi

Lecturer, Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative

Hesam Panahi is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. He is also a faculty member at Rice University’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie). Prior to Rice, Panahi was a clinical assistant professor at University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business, where he taught courses in management information systems, computer science, industrial design, and entrepreneurship. While at the University of Houston, Prof. Panahi also founded RED Labs, the University of Houston’s startup accelerator and technology entrepreneurship program. Outside of the university, Panahi co-organizes and facilitates 3 Day Startup and Startup Weekend, in addition to mentoring local startups at Station Houston, a coworking accelerator based in Houston. Panahi holds a Ph.D. and B.B.A. in management information systems, both from the University of Houston.