New to town

Exclusive: Global early stage accelerator program launches second Texas location in Houston

Palo Alto-based Founder Institute is launching its Houston program at Station Houston. Image courtesy Founder Institute

Silicon Valley-based Founder Institute has announced its second Texas program in Houston, which will operate out of Station Houston. Founder Institute Houston applications for the inaugural cohort close May 19.

The early stage accelerator focuses on advancing startup companies in the pre-funding phase.

"It's quite different from any other program in Houston currently," says Neal Murthy, director of Founder Institute Houston. "It's an accelerator, but it's an idea-stage accelerator."

Before Founder Institute, Houston's only early stage opportunities were tied to universities — like the University of Houston's Red Labs or Rice University's Owl Spark — and those are typically focused on the university's community and on education, Murthy says.

In anticipation of launch, Founder Institute Houston will host a series of free entrepreneurial events, with the first one being March 19.

The Houston chapter will be ran by three directors: Murthy, a UH lecturer and angel investor, James Phelan, innovation expert with a real estate background, and Tabbie Saenz, Alice community leader and Baker Ripley mentor. Martin Martinez, managing director of Founder Institute Texas, who launched the Austin program, will also join the team.

"What's nice about our team is because we were already colleagues and friends prior to coming together on this project, we already have rapor, we can communicate, and we know each other's working styles, strengths, and weaknesses," says Phelan.

Founded in 2009 by Adeo Ressi and Jonathan Greechan, Founder Institute has chapters in 180 cities in 65 countries. They've contributed to 3,500 companies that have now raised over $800 million.

"Houston's supportive startup community and its affordable living costs have inspired a lot of entrepreneurial enthusiasm in the city. Every year, more co-working spaces and incubators move to Houston and it's now easier to launch a startup here than ever before. We aim to help that trend," Ressi says in a release. "I believe that our structured accelerator program will give potential founders the guidance they need to launch successful technology companies in Houston."

Every chapter focuses on the same idea-stage type of company and selects around 30 companies to participate in a 14-week course of education, mentorship, and business development. The cohort spends around three hours a week in educational programming, but then is expected to spend 20 to 25 hours a week working assignments and business development. It's designed to be tough. Usually, only around 10 founders of the 30 will cross the finish line.

"If they can't handle this course, then there's no way they're going to be a successful founder because this course is a breeze compared to running a company," says Phalen.

The Founder Institute alumni network is huge, and is one of the program's biggest perks. Not only do participants get access to a network successful founders, but they also usually have a foot in the door at the next stage of competitive accelerator programs.

"That's an enormously valuable thing from a fundraising aspect if you have the support from another successful founder standing next to you, vouching for you," Phelan says.

Another thing that makes Founder Institute different is, rather than operating off an equity approach, Founder Institute and its local directors receive warrants from each participating company. And, fellow founders and even program mentors receive a cut too.

"The sharing of that [means] everyone has economic incentives and it encourages collaboration among the cohort itself," Murthy says.

Founder Institute's expansion plan for Texas doesn't end at Austin and Houston. Two other locations in Dallas and San Antonio are also in route to the Lone Star State. However, Houston's a bit different of a city to be in, with it's diversity and large size.

"We are going to be targeting a very diverse community as well. We want to have everyone who hasn't had a chance to access resources like this," Saenz says.

Murthy, who has been a mentor for the Founder Institute in Austin, says it's so remarkable to see how much these founders accomplish in the 14 weeks, and he can't wait to see that affect the Houston ecosystem.

"We think that Houston needs a number of new elements to fill out its ecosystem, and this is one of them — an idea-stage accelerator," Murthy says. "We've seen the success it's had in Austin and globally, and we're hoping to bring that to 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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