eavesdropping in houston

Overheard: Houston energy experts share how tech and startups are affecting the industry

How is technology affecting the energy sector? These experts weigh in. Getty Images

Last week, Houston-based Pink Petro hosted its annual conference — but, quite like other events across the country, it took a very digital approach.

Energy 2.0, formerly called HerWorld, was always going to be streamed from two locations — Denver and Houston — but the conference, which took place from March 9 to 11, likely had more digital attendees than previous years thanks to the rising threat of COVID19, or the coronavirus.

The digital shift was pretty on par with the conversation of the "unconference," as its called. The last panel of March 10 was how tech was rattling the energy industry. Three panelists discussed the effect of technology on the industry, climate change, startups, and more. Here are some of the panelists best points made during this event.

“Technology isn’t new to the energy sector. The energy sector is used to adopting and adapting to new technologies. What we are talking about now is digital technology, and what’s happening there — we are not familiar with that.”

Geeta Thakorlal, president at Worley Digital. It's not innovation that's unfamiliar to energy companies, but the digital aspect, which includes introducing new tech from outside the industry. "When you talk about adoption and use of digital technology, it means different things to different people," she adds.

"We’re taking a look at technology, but also addressing the people [aspect] — looking at what people are doing with technology and how the social issues are impacted by technology."

Jennifer Hohman, CIO and vice president, at Seadrill. The conversation started with a broad scope on how the energy industry is approaching technology, and Hohman cites climate change and sex trafficking — two issues the industry has been affecting.

“As society is changing, we start to worry about people’s safety — that’s very natural in our industry, but moving that into what about social issues or even renewables."

David Reid, CMO of National Oilwell Varco. Reid adds that the energy industry is aware of its role in the world and has a people-centric approach to technology, including being aware of how it affects the people involved in the energy company's supply chain. "I think it all ties together."

“Technology is constantly going to move fast — we have to continue to face that.”

Hohman says on the energy industry adapting to technology, adding that tech allows for more collaboration — something energy companies should be doing, even if it means collaborating with a competitor.

"What the tech sector has done is actually helped energy industry because they challenged all these norms — diversity of thought, fail and fail fast — you don't use that language in the energy sector."

Thakorlal says, explaining that influences from the tech sector have been crucial. Ultimately, big tech companies are looking to small startups for innovation, and energy companies will be doing more of that as well. "The tech companies have had to learn it's not they who has got the solutions, and the energy sector has learned that too."

“We’ve got a world that wants a change, and does not know and understand what we’ve done.”

Reid says on the topic of the energy industry's role in the future of the sector. "What's missing is the potential of our industry to make a difference."

“The biggest barrier to advancing technology is fear — people not really understanding. Fear is a choice.”

Thakorlal says, adding that fear is a choice companies can make — but shouldn't. Instead, they should maintain their business while simultaneously adopting tech that will be key in the future. "We say in our organization that if you talk about energy transition or digital transformation in our sector, it's not an 'either/or' it's an 'and.' We have to keep doing what we are doing and transition that to what we want the future to be."

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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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