seeing green

App created by Houston entrepreneur tracks personal sustainability

Climate change sparked a young Houstonian to create Footprint, an app that tracks a person's ecological impact. Photo courtesy of Footprint

Early in the morning on June 5, 2001, the tents in which Dakota Stormer and his family were sleeping started to blow over. Rain started coming down, hard and sideways, as the family scrambled to escape tropical storm Allison, which would later devastate the Houston area with flooding and kill 41 people. Stormer and his family made it home safely, but there were damages: $8.5 billion across the Atlantic coast, and a severe impression on Stormer that environmental issues were of deadly consequence.

Last year, Stormer's interest in environmental activism led him to make Footprint, an app that tracks the carbon footprints of users. It works similar to diet-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, but it doesn't count the calories; instead, it logs the emissions of their eating and travel habits.

"It's kind of difficult to change your behavior immediately, but we try to make it easy so that your sustainable decisions can become a habit," Stormer says.

Climate change threatens the Houston area remarkably: Rising sea levels and warming waters will likely bring stronger and more devastating storms to the city — not unlike Hurricane Harvey, a category 4, which hit in 2017.

In 2018, Stormer joined the Citizens Climate Lobby to push legislation that could combat the effects of climate change in Texas. The Lobby appeals to both sides of the aisle, Stormer says, but getting laws passed still takes time — and many of the lobbyists wanted a way to engage themselves in the environmental efforts at a human level. That's how Stormer, along with three high school students as interns, came up with the prototype for Footprint.

Footprint users complete generalized surveys that sum up the carbon emissions of their day-to-day habits — how often they drive and fly, their meat intake and typical portion sizes. The app's algorithm calculates an annual carbon footprint, then averages it out to a per-week measure. This way, users know their goals — and the app sends them suggestions and challenges, like "meatless Mondays," to help reduce their emissions. This feature, Stormer says, can be used in organizations to create competitions that incentivize reducing everyone's carbon footprints.

"For one person, it doesn't seem like there's much that you can do," Stormer says. "But the number of people across the world that care about climate change — it's actually a majority, at this point."

Dakota Stormer created the Footprint app to help users be more conscientious of their personal contribution to climate change. Photo courtesy of Stormer

There's also a marketplace, which connects Footprint users to other companies creating sustainable products and organizations that offer environmental resources. The major thrust, though, of this early-stage project is education: Footprint is piloting in a Houston classroom, and Stormer has plans for more pilots across Texas to affect more environmentally conscious curriculum. Having recently graduated high schoolers on the staff, Stormer says, has helped to easily fit the app into classroom settings. They're also running a pilot in a local law firm, to test the app's effectiveness in corporate settings.

For now, Footprint is raising $65,000 in an angel round to run effectively and hiring another developer to monitor the app as it grows past its early stages. It has also recently formed a climate advisory council — made up of researchers, professors, investors, principals, and other education professionals — to engage even more people in the app's development.

Stormer's strategy is to create a community of people invested — financially, politically, and personally — in reducing human impact on the earth.

"When you build a community around it, you can have significant impacts on the future of our planet," Stormer says.

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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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