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5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

Amazon's AI-enabled Houston fulfillment center, Comcast's new digs, and startup accelerators are this week's top stories. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Editor's note: Innovation is everywhere — from inside a massive urban park to the robots sorting cat food. This week's top stories are as diverse as they come, but they all represent Houston tech and innovation.

How Amazon's Houston fulfillment center uses AI technology and robotics to move millions of products

From robotics to artificial intelligence, here's how Amazon gets its products to Houstonians in record time. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Last summer, Amazon opened the doors to its North Houston distribution center — one of the company's 50 centers worldwide that uses automation and robotics to fulfill online orders.

The Pinto Business Park facility has millions of products in inventory across four floors. Products that are 25 pounds or less (nothing heavier is stocked at this location) pass through 20 miles of conveyor belts, 1,500 employees, and hundreds of robots. Read the full story here.

3 ways the Memorial Park Conservancy renovations are innovative

Memorial Park Conservancy's renovations include some projects that are rare or never been done before. Photo courtesy of MPC

Memorial Park is undergoing a huge transformation that is mixing a little bit of old with the new.

The Memorial Park Master Plan includes adding breathtaking new projects — like water features, a new athletic complex, and more — as well as conservation efforts that restore parts of the land that were native coastal prairie. The project is a collaborative effort between Memorial Park Conservancy, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. Read the full story here.

Breaking down Houston's 4 new startup accelerator programs

Houston has seen four new accelerators enter the market this year. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

It's official — 2019 is the year of accelerators in Houston. Four different accelerator programs have announced plans to launch Houston programs this year so far — and they are all bringing something different to the table.

All four of the programs represent global programs or big companies recognizing the potential in Houston, which, according to Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice University Entrepreneurship Initiative, is a key part of the equation.

"When you're talking about a place like Houston, what we need here right now is interest from the outside," Hochberg says. "We need some certification by people from the outside that in fact this is a destination for innovation and entrepreneurship." Read the full story here.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

These three innovators are ones to look out for. Courtesy photos

From venture capital funding to nap research, these Houston innovators are leading the way in their industries. This week's innovators to know are a finance expert, LGBT leader and productivity expert, and a Houston expat making big moves in real estate. Read the full story here.

Comcast unveils its $16 million technology center in a growing suburb just outside of Houston

The new $16 million Comcast facility is another feather in the cap of Fort Bend County, which is booming with new business.Courtesy of Comcast

At Comcast's new $16 million technology center in Missouri City, technicians for the internet and cable TV provider can "test drive" new product and services at a demo lab and can take classes at Comcast University. It's a far cry from the stereotypical workplace of the "cable guy."

The center represents a cutting-edge expansion for Comcast — and represents yet another feather in the economic-growth cap of Missouri City and Fort Bend County.

On June 19, officials from Comcast, Missouri City government, and the Fort Bend Economic Development Council debuted the 32,000-square-foot center. The center is at 551 Buffalo Lakes Dr., near the intersection of Texas Freeway and Independence Boulevard. Aside from the demo lab and Comcast University classrooms, the center features more than 100 workstations and 15 conference rooms. Read the full story 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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