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How technology helped Houston fight against the pandemic

Here's what Houston tech is making a difference locally amid the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

The entire world came to a standstill when the COVID-19 pandemic came knocking at the door, and Houston was no different than the rest. Businesses got shut down, people were losing jobs left and right, the medical infrastructure was wheezing from the huge patient-influx, and whatnot.

However, the Space City managed to weather the storm thanks to its firm resolve and technological interventions from Houston-based businesses and several other players. But that doesn't mean we are out of the woods yet.

The silver lining, however, is that we now know the threat can be mitigated with the help of technologies at our disposal. In this article, we'll discuss how technology has facilitated the fight against the pandemic. Some of the local businesses from Houston also had a significant role to play in providing an arsenal for this war, and we'll be discussing their contribution as well. So let's get started:

Remote healthcare assistance with smart data collection and management

The biggest challenge at the beginning of the pandemic was to provide proper care to those exposed to the virus without putting the lives of frontline workers in danger. On top of that, hospitals also had to make sure that patients suffering from other illnesses do not come into contact with the virus.

With the number of patients rising exponentially, the medical infrastructure could've never been able to cope up if it were not for telemedicine. It's a combination of remote and data technologies that allow healthcare workers to assist and treat patients without going in their physical proximity.

Houston's Medical Informatics Corp. did some exceptional work in making remote healthcare a feasible option for medical institutions. Their solution aims at collecting accurate and comprehensive data that'll further allow physicians to provide better care to the patients. While the luxury of social distancing is among the most significant benefits of this solution, there are several other benefits in the long run.

Since MIC's solution focuses on collecting quality data from all the possible data points, the information can also help identify any significant trends in how the virus is affecting the patients. Artificial intelligence and machine learning seem like the perfect allies to bolster MIC's solution further.

The tech also allows for patients to get quality consultation from experts located in other geographical locations. Hospitals can also leverage such an infrastructure to scale up and down with ease by quickly bringing in more remote caregivers in case of a spike in patients' numbers.

Telemedicine has been brilliant in helping the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic and paved the way for a revamped healthcare infrastructure in the future. The one in which affordable healthcare is a norm and physical distances are not an issue anymore.

Drones and robots for sanitization and upkeep

Once the lockdown restrictions were slowly uplifted, businesses needed to be more cautious about sanitizing the facilities and ensure there was no reason forcing them to close the shop again. The challenge turned out to be bigger for larger facilities as they can't simply deploy a large workforce to take care of it. It would be impossible to follow social distancing norms under such circumstances.

Many stadiums in Houston concluded that employing drones for the job is the way to go, and they couldn't have been more correct. Texas Medical Technology used 'SaniDrones' to spray disinfectants over large facilities and equipment. These drones are pretty much like what is used for agricultural fields and carry large amounts of spraying material at a time to get the job done.

The company also has an army of various other robots that can help businesses abide by pandemic norms. They have one that automatically puts protective coverings on the visitor's shoes to help prevent outside elements from entering the facility. Then they also have a robot that can take orders from customers in restaurants. It can show them 3-D menus and expertly ask customers what they'd like to order. They also offer SaniGate, which disinfect visitors before entering the premises, thus curbing the spread of the virus.

Airobotics is another Houston-based company coming up with technologically advanced solutions for businesses to deal with the pandemic. They provide drones to industrial players, such as oil and gas companies, to monitor and inspect the facility. The drones collect information critical to such plants' smooth functioning and prevent the analysts from going around and touching surfaces on the plant.

The pandemic made us realize that we can't always rely on human workers to care for the fieldwork. Drones and robots provide a suitable alternative to such jobs, and as these solutions get more commonplace, we can also expect them to get more affordable.

Bringing the economy back to life by keeping the virus out of the ecosystem

The economic slowdown brought by the coronavirus is unlike what most of us could even comprehend. With small businesses taking the biggest hit and a good fraction of them shutting down forever, it's necessary for the remaining ones free from the clutches of the pandemic.

And one of the better ways to do that is by minimizing the virus's spread at places where people frequent the most. One of the primary reasons for the coronavirus to be so transmissible is because of how it can travel through seemingly healthy carriers. It might cause a mild fever in some, but that usually doesn't keep people from getting out.

DataVox, a Houston based tech company, provides thermal scanners to make sure possibly infected humans stay away from the virus. The thermal scanners provided by them only check for the temperature and don't affect the privacy of those being scanned. It's a seemingly simple but effective way to deal with such a dangerous element.

Another positive news in this context is that researchers at the University of Houston have designed an air filter capable of filtering out the coronavirus to a great deal of effectiveness. Once commercially available, this can be installed in closed facilities and ensure the virus doesn't enter even through the vents.

There is no doubt that leveraging technology is the way to go forward despite how the situation unfolds. Houston is now implementing smart city solutions with the same thing in mind, and we should also be following their lead.

With a workforce of skilled software developers in Houston, and the city's rich background in technology, the adoption of tech measures should not turn out to be a tough deal. And Houston-based firms coming up with advanced solutions is only a good sign for the city.

Let's hope we'll be seeing more of these in the future, and more Houston businesses will help the city and the world fight this pandemic.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

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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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