By the numbers

4 things you need to know from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report as it pertains to innovation

The Greater Houston Partnership has the facts. Nick Bee/Pexels

Every year, the Greater Houston Partnership — the city's economic development arm — gathers up data and reports to paint a full picture of the Bayou City. In the past few editions, innovation has been a key component.

The GHP's innovation coverage spans three pages under the top industry and sectors category. From tech startup growth to money raised, here's what you need to know from the 2019 Houston Facts.

Houston has the 12th largest tech sector in the United States

Christina Morillo/Pexels

The innovation section starts pretty strong with this fun fact. The No. 12 tech sector ranking comes from Computing Technology Industry Association, which cites that Houston has more than 223,000 tech workers. According to the report, about two-thirds of Houston's tech workers are in industries outside of computer and software.

GHP credits Houston's large population of tech workers to its connection to aerospace and oil and gas.

"As the home of NASA's Johnson Space Center and headquarters to the global energy industry, Houston has long been a global hub of engineering talent," the report reads. "In recent years, those skills have given rise to a thriving ecosystem of digital technology companies."

GHP's data reflect that Houston has more than 8,200 tech-related firms, which includes over 500 tech startups.

Venture funding was up over 50 percent between 2017 and 2018

Via Houston Facts


Houston's recorded venture funding doesn't have a hockey stick chart to brag about. Over the past few years, venture funding has been up and down, according to S&P Capital IQ.

"Houston companies in clean energy, health innovation and digital technology have received $3.1 billion in venture capital and growth funding across 333 deals since 2014, averaging $576 million every year," the report reads.

But between 2018 and 2017, VC funds were up 50.9 percent. Of the three categories, clean energy technology pulled in the most money each year and was responsible for 64 percent of the funding during the 2014-2018 period. Sunnova, a residential solar company, had the most money raised during this time with $1.3 billion.

The largest deals reported in Houston in 2018 were:

  • Sunnova Energy — $183 million
  • OncoResponse — $40 million
  • Trisun Energy Services — $39 million
  • Arundo Analytics — $25 million
  • Procyrion — $16 million
  • QuVa Pharma — $15 million
  • NeoSensory — $12 million

University-backed entrepreneurship remains strong

Courtesy of Rice University

The Princeton Review ranks Rice University and the University of Houston as having among the best entrepreneurship programs in the country. Rice runs its Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship out of its Jones Graduate School of Business, while University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship is housed in the Bauer College of Business.

Both schools have run accelerator programs for seven years — the past six of which have been in collaboration. Rice's OwlSpark and UH's RED Labs finished this summer's program on August 1 at the Bayou Startup Showcase with 16 startup pitches.

Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition is deemed the "richest pitch competition" in the country. In 2019, the competition saw $3 million invested. RBPC companies have gone on to raise $1.2 billion in capital during the competition's 18-year history.

At UH, which has its own set of pitch events, the Wolff Center's graduate students manage a million-dollar Cougar Venture Fund. The fund has a group of experts that analyze and invest in early stage technology companies.

The life science industry continues to grow

Via Houston Facts

In 2018, Houston housed 20.5 percent of the country's clinical trials, with over 1,800 active. The city has more than 1,760 life sciences companies and over 25,100 biotech experts and 7,200 medical researchers.

Thankfully, the money seems to match this volume of activity. Last year, Houston's medical research grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, which totaled $668 million in 2018, was up almost 7 percent from 2017. The city's medical institutions have received nearly $3 billion from NIH since 2014 — an average of $600 million a year.

According to the GHP, the top Houston institutions receiving NIH funding in 2018 were:

  • Baylor College of Medicine — $255 million
  • University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — $149 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center — $90 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston — $87 million
  • University of Houston — $24 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — $19 million
  • Rice University — $14 million
  • Texas Southern University — $3 million

As mentioned before, venture capital and private equity investment has increased in Houston, and that trend is also represented in the life science sector. In 2018, life science startups raked in $119 million, which represents a a 41.7 percent increase from $84 million in 201717, according to S&P Capital IQ.

In 2018, the top biotech firms receiving investment were:

  • OncoResponse — $40 million
  • Procyrion — $16 million
  • QuVa Pharma — $15 million
  • Pulmotect — $10 million
  • Tvardi Therapeutics — $9 million

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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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