money moves

11 startups pitch top Houston angel investors at biannual summit

The Houston Angel Network's investors heard from growing startups in their portfolio — along with a few prospects. Getty Images

The Houston Angel Network checked in with their investors and portfolio companies at their biannual Houston Angel Summit that gathered HAN members, local investors, and startup founders for a day full of educational opportunities, pitches, and fireside chats.

The event, which took place last week at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, featured 11 startups – both new and more familiar to HAN members – pitching their growing companies in hopes of catching the interest of potential investors.

BioMedical Music Solutions

Austin-based BioMedical Music Solutions has a SaaS platform that uses artificial intelligence and music to accelerate rehabilitation at a lower cost. Founder Hope Young explained her years-proven therapy can work its magic in one-third of the time and one-tenth of the cost of traditional physical therapy sessions.

Optelos

Houston-based Optelos has a patented SaaS solution that can transform physical asset images, videos, and documents into what's known as a "Digital Inspection Twin" that can enabling knowledge workers utilizing our unified data management, reality modeling, and in-process artificial intelligence solution, to digitally visualize, analyze and manage their entire asset base.

Pocket Naloxone

Maryland-based Pocket Naloxone is attempting to solve the opioid crisis. The company has a portfolio of over-the-counter drug overdose reversal agents, including a naloxone OTC product.

AI Driller

Houston-based AI Driller is using mathematic algorithms to apply automation on rigs for drilling. The startup can also offer its clients real-time data and cuts out the opportunity for human error.

Cavu Biotherapies

Houston pet immunotherapy company, Cavu Biotherapies, has seen a tremendous amount of growth and is now a treatment partner at 43 clinic providers in 18 states and Canada. Founder Colleen O'Connor says she's seen a near 600 percent growth in revenue over the past year and treated 38 dog cancer patients in that timeframe.

CorInnova

Another Houston company, CorInnova, has created a device from a soft, flexible material that can be easily inserted through a 1-inch incision, and then be used for increase blood pumping in the heart by 50 percent.

Hive Genie

Houston-based Hive Genie is using technology to help beekeepers optimize their pollination operations and monitor hive operations remotely. Gone are the days, Hive Genie hopes, that beekeepers need to suit up to track and maintain their colonies physically.

Siera AI

Austin-based Siera AI is using its AI-enabled cloud IoT platform for logistics solutions and safety improvements in warehouse settings. A goal of the company's, according to its website, is to free humans from these types of dull, dangerous, dirty tasks.

Skycom

The sky's not even the limit for Austin-based Skycom and its airship technology that supplies low-cost cell towers in orbit. The technology can bring down the cost of mobile service providers and allow for growth into new markets.

Tevido

Another Austin company, Tevido uses a pigment cell graft process to use patients' own skin cells to restore normal skin color for patients with vitiligo and pale scars.

Tot Squad

Los Angeles-based Tot Squad emerged as a service-focused company for baby-related tasks and now has emerged as a digital marketplace connecting service providers online to parents and to-be parents for needs like stroller cleaning or carseat installation.

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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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