numbers game

Data-focused Houston company arms startups with the AI tools they need to grow

It's all a numbers game, and Mercury Data Science is about setting up startups for success. Getty Images

While some say a picture is worth a thousand words, having the right data can be make or break. Houston-based Mercury Data Science is using data and artificial intelligence to paint some really specific pictures for its clients.

MDS was born out of a need for Houston-based Mercury Fund's portfolio companies that wanted a firmer handle on artificial intelligence and data science.

"Three years ago, a number of Mercury Fund portfolio companies and potential investments began to have increasingly important data science and AI components," says Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. "Mercury's partners wanted a deeper understanding of AI, to understand how the cutting edge meets industry use cases."

Mercury Fund's first move was to tap data scientist Angela Wilkins to lead some training, which then turned into even more workshops and advising. The companies ranged from early seed stage startups to companies that had raised over $100 million — and they wanted Wilkins' help, either with the basics of data science or execution of analytics.

"In fact, many of the more established companies were sitting on data assets with plans to build AI-enabled products but didn't have the time or people to really start that process," Wilkins says. "After helping a few companies, we realized the need was pretty deep, and bigger than the Mercury Fund portfolio."

Wilkins, who serves the company as CTO and co-CEO with Watkins, has seen her efforts grow MDS client base. InnovationMap sat down with Wilkins to see how far MDS has come — and where it's going.

InnovationMap: What sort of problems and data solutions are you providing clients?

Angela Wilkins: We love projects that have a direct impact on human health. In health, we build machine learning driven products to create new forms of digital diagnostics to help improve diagnosis in areas like cognitive functioning and depression. We have helped several therapeutics companies accelerate drug discovery and development by extracting insights from biological and imaging data. We have internal tools that use natural language processing to extract knowledge from millions of scientific publications and patents.

We have also worked quite a bit in consumer behavior and some of our physics-oriented data scientists are now working on noise reduction in geophysics technologies.

IM: What feedback do you get from clients?

AW: Company leaders in every sector are feeling the pressure to gain the advantages of AI or risk falling behind. There are many expert level teams available to Fortune 500 organizations. We are one of the very few teams that is entrepreneurial and agile enough to work with earlier stage, high growth organizations.

IM: How does MDS work with Mercury Fund? Has that relationship evolved over the years?

AW: We continue to work with the Mercury Fund portfolio companies but that is a smaller part of what we do. We are venture backed ourselves, and have now become a Mercury Fund portfolio company, with the same growth ambitions as all venture backed companies.

IM: Recently, MDS has seen some growth. How many employees have you added and are you still hiring?

AW: We are up to 20 employees, mostly data scientists, many with 5 to 8 years of experience working in AI, bioinformatics, and data science to provide insights and build products. We are always looking for great data scientists and data engineers to join our team. We also started a fellowship position for recent graduates, and so we can identify and train the next generation of data scientists

IM: What's been the biggest surprise for you as MDS has grown?

AW: We have been able to create this unique culture that thrives on diversity of thought and background. Half of our team is women. We are solving hard problems that benefit from the creativity you get from a wide variety of views.

IM: Where are MDS clients based?

AW: We have clients from San Francisco to Basel. We have learned how to build an integrated, high communication team with the client, so location is not critical.

That being said, we are active in and committed contributors to the Houston innovation ecosystem. Many of us are from a computational biology and bioinformatics background with deep roots in the Texas Medical Center institutions. Houston has amazing talent and we want to show the data scientists that they don't have to leave Houston to work on interesting problems and continue to build skills at the cutting edge while working for companies all over the world.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in venture capital? Are these trends happening in Houston?

We are seeing increasing investments in health AI. Fierce Healthcare reports that health AI topped all other sectors last year with $4B invested into AI startups. Andreesen Horowitz has announced their third and largest biotech and health care fund with $750 million to invest: "Machine learning and artificial intelligence [will] have an outsize impact on how we discover drugs and diagnose disease."

We see similar trends in other areas from industrial software to financial services. The upshot is that the adoption of AI creates significant opportunities for startups and significant challenges for larger companies that are not entrepreneurial and able to build their own data science skill set.

As far as Houston goes, the same trends are there but we tend to lag the major technology hubs in adoption. Efforts like TMC Innovation, Station, Rice University/The Ion and Houston Exponential are having a big impact on both the number and pace of startups and, increasingly, those have AI as a key part of their technology stack.

IM: We've talked about how MDS flies under the radar — why do you think that is? Do you think that'll change as you grow?

AW: Our initial focus was on the work for our clients and on building our team. We are ready to be noticed. Thank you for helping us tell the story with this article.

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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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