Head honcho

Houston biopharmaceutical company brings on new CEO to grow company

A Houston biotech company has a new CEO and is ready for growth. Getty Images

With a veteran of the biopharmaceutical industry now aboard as its CEO and an executive at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca now serving on its board, Houston-based biopharmaceutical company Pulmotect Inc. is poised for progress.

In September, Dr. Colin Broom joined Pulmotect as CEO. He previously was CEO of Ireland-based Nabriva Therapeutics plc, a biopharmaceutical company that went public in 2015. During Broom's tenure at Nabriva, he helped develop the recently approved drug Xenleta, which treats bacterial pneumonia. Before that, he was chief scientific officer at Pennsylvania-based pharmaceutical company ViroPharma Inc., which Massachusetts-based Shire plc purchased for $4.2 billion in 2014.

Broom's hiring came on the heels of Kumar Srinivasan being named to Pulmotect's board of directors. Srinivasan is vice president of United Kingdom-based AstraZeneca and is its global head of business development and licensing for biopharmaceuticals R&D.

Researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Texas A&M University invented Pulmotect's main product, PUL-042, which holds patents in nine countries. Pulmotect, founded in 2007, emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector.

"Attracting such a highly regarded and proven CEO as Colin is a clear signal of the power and potential of Pulmotect's development program," Pulmotect's executive chairman, Leo Linbeck III, founder and chairman of Fannin, says in a release. "Under his leadership, I'm confident that we will advance our technology further into the clinic and closer to the marketplace. His addition is a real game-changer for the company."

Both Broom and Srinivasan are focusing on clinical trials for Pulmotect's PUL-042 product, an inhaled therapy that holds the potential to prevent or treat respiratory infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The current Phase 2 trial is evaluating the effectiveness of PUL-042 in treating patients with mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who've been exposed to a respiratory virus. The current trial is supposed to be followed by additional Phase 2 trials.

COPD, which affects 30 million Americans, is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., according to the COPD Foundation. Pulmotect says 40 percent of COPD-related costs could be avoided by preventing complications and hospitalizations, which typically result from COPD problems triggered by a bacterial or viral infection. PUL-042 could substantially decrease those complications, the company says.

Pulmotect seeks to gear PUL-042 toward patients with cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy, as their weakened immunity makes them highly susceptible to pneumonia, Broom says. If the product proves effective with those patients, then people at risk of developing respiratory infections also might benefit from it, including COPD patients and flu patients, he says.

To date, Pulmotect has raised more than $28 million in funding. That includes about $18 million in research grants, including a $7 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, as well as seven grants from the Small Business Innovation Research program.

Two of Pulmotect's three full-time employees work in Houston, and a team of consultants supports their work, Broom says. A small number of employees might be added during the current Phase 2 trial. Hiring would need to be ramped up if the Phase 2 trial demonstrates that PUL-042 works, he says.

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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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