Guest column

How the pandemic advanced tech in government and education, according to this Houston expert

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. Photo via Getty Images

If you've logged onto a government website recently, you know that dealing with creaking, outdated government technology is about as much fun as a trip to the DMV. Held back by byzantine procurement rules, management-by-committee, and an aggressive commitment to decades-old UX principles, government websites and other tech tools are routinely confusing, horrible to use, and deeply inefficient.

Now, though, that could finally be changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our relationships with the technologies we use, from Zoom calls to e-commerce services. Increasingly, government bodies are finding themselves forced to move faster, adopt more up-to-date technologies, and work with private-sector partners to meet new challenges and quickly bring their services into the 21st century.

Getting an education

One of the most dramatic examples comes in the realm of education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 93 percent of school-age children have engaged in distance learning since the pandemic began, and four fifths of them relied on digital tech to take the place of classroom resources. But with access to digital tech at home strongly correlated to household income, governments and education departments have had to move quickly to ensure every child has access to laptops and web connections.

Not everyone is a fan of remote learning, and as a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to have kids at home. But one thing we should all be able to agree on is that if we're going to rely on digital learning, then we need to make sure it's available to everyone, including those families that don't have access to reliable computers and WiFi connections at home.

Achieving that rapidly and at scale has required remarkable flexibility and creativity from policymakers at all levels. Those that have succeeded have done so by brushing aside the red tape that has ensnared previous government tech initiatives, and instead working with private-sector partners to rapidly implement the solutions that are needed.

Lessons from Texas

Here in Texas, for instance, one in six public school students lacked access to high-speed internet connections at the start of the pandemic, and 30% lacked access to laptops or other learning devices. To speed the transition to remote learning, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched Operation Connectivity — a $400 million campaign to connect 5.5 million Texas public school students with a computer device and reliable internet connection. To date 4 million devices have been purchased and are being distributed to kids, opening doors to greater educational and economic opportunities. Further work is in progress to remove other connectivity barriers like slow connection speeds in rural areas to help students and all Texans.

Rolling out such an ambitious project to our state's 1,200 or so school districts could have been a disaster. After all, many government IT projects grind along for months or years without delivering the desired results — often at huge cost to taxpayers. But Operation Connectivity has been different because it's grounded in a true partnership between the government and private-sector players.

Facing urgent deadlines, government leaders turned to Gaby Rowe, former CEO of the Ion tech hub, to spearhead the project. As a tech innovator, Rowe brought entrepreneurial energy and a real understanding of the power of public-private partnerships, and drove Operation Connectivity from the blueprint to execution in a matter of weeks. Tech giants including Microsoft, SAP, and Hubspot also quickly joined the effort, helping to deliver cost-effective connectivity and hardware solutions to ensure that every kid in our state could get the education they deserve. Since then, Operation Connectivity has distributed over a million devices, including laptops and wireless hotspots, to families in need, with costs split between the state and individual districts.

Private sector edge

To get a sense of how private-sector knowhow can spur government tech transformation, consider my own company, Digital Glyde. As part of the Operation Connectivity effort, we were asked to help design and build the back-end software and planning infrastructure needed to coordinate effectively with hundreds of school district officials scattered all across our state.

Ordinarily, that kind of effort would require a drawn-out process of consultation, committee-work, and red tape. But facing an urgent need to help our state's children, we were given the freedom to move quickly, and were able to implement a viable system within just a few days.

By leveraging cutting-edge data-extraction and image-processing tools, we helped Operation Connectivity to automatically process invoices and match tech costs to available COVID relief funding in record time. We achieved 95% accuracy within three weeks of deployment to ensure school districts quickly received reimbursements for the hardware they were purchasing on behalf of their schoolchildren.

Building on success

Operation Connectivity is just one example of the ways in which government actors have embraced tech and leveraged private-sector assistance to chart their way through the COVID crisis. From contact-tracing programs to vaccine distribution programs, we're seeing governments taking a far more pragmatic and partnership-driven approach to technology.

Of course, not every experiment goes to plan. In Florida, government agencies decided to use web tools to manage vaccination appointments — but implemented that idea using a commercial website built to handle birthday party e-vites. Unsurprisingly, the results were chaotic, with users having to scramble to grab appointments as they were posted to the site, and seniors struggling to wrap their head around a website designed for young parents.

Such stories are a reminder that governments can't solve big problems simply by grabbing at whatever tech tools are nearest to hand. It's vital to find the right solutions, and to work with partners who understand the complexity and constraints that come with delivering public-sector services at scale.

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. In recent months, we've shown what can be done when we pull together, and combine real governmental leadership with private-sector innovation and efficiency. We'll need much more of this kind of teamwork and tech-enabled creativity in the months and years to come.

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Varun Garg is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Digital Glyde

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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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