Who's who

3 Houston innovators to know who are starting new roles

TMC Innovation, Station Houston, and FanReact all made executive hires last week. Courtesy photos

It's been a busy week for Houston innovators. TMC Innovation Institute hired its new director, and Station Houston created a new director position — and filled it too. Plus, FanReact decided to divide and conquer its esports business, which meant a new executive hire.

Tom Luby, director of the TMC Innovation Institute

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

The Texas Medical Center has been searching for its new director over the past few months, but turns out, their pick was right next door at JLABS @ TMC serving as the site head. Tom Luby took the position, and has big plans to continue the institutes growth ahead of TMC3.

"What I hope to be helpful with is providing an overall strategic vision around TMC Innovation that allows us to scale from what's already been done here," Luby says in an InnovationMap interview.

Before moving to Houston, Luby worked in Boston's booming life sciences ecosystem. While it's not fair to compare Houston and Boston — a city that has had decades of growth in the space — he does note some similarities.

"If you roll the Boston tape back lets say 20 years where Boston was focused on generating a place where life science startups could have a chance to develop and be successful, that's where Houston is," Luby says. "We've gotten to a point where we're starting to see a really good density." Read more from the Tom Luby interview here.

Deanea LeFlore, director of community engagement, partnerships, and education at Station Houston

Deanea LeFlore is Station Houston's new director of community engagement, partnerships, and education. Courtesy of Station Houston

Station Houston hired Deanea LeFlore as director of community engagement, partnerships, and education. Previously, LeFlore served as chief of protocol for the city of Houston and a vice president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"My passion is promoting Houston as a world-class place to invest, work and live, and I am thrilled to join an organization that embodies this same spirit," says LeFlore in a release. "Station's dedication to accelerating Houston's tech growth through collaboration and innovation compliments my professional experience and I look forward to opening our doors to new partners, expanding programming with our long-time supporters, and introducing Station to a new network of leaders." Read more about Station's new hire here.

Patrick Schneidau, CEO of RanReact

Chris Buckner (left), who has served as FanReact's CEO since its founding in 2014, will be the CEO of Mainline, and Patrick Schneidau has been hired to serve as CEO of FanReact. Photos courtesy

Houston-based FanReact has spun off its esports business as its own company, Mainline. Former FanReact CEO Chris Buckner will take the reins of the new business as CEO, and Patrick Schneidau has been hired as FanReact CEO.

Schneidau has has a long career in Houston's tech scene. He spent 12 years at Houston software company PROS and was on the leadership team when the company went public in 2007. Since he left his position as CMO at PROS, he served as the chair of the Talent Committee for Houston Exponential and serves on the board for InnovationMap.

"The Mainline business has been so successful in recent history, that it just made sense for us to dedicate resources toward building that market," Schneidau says. "The momentum in that market as a whole — and in Mainline specifically — is just too large to ignore and not put 100 percent of Chris' time in." Read more about the spinoff company here.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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