Big winners

Houston companies take home big prizes from a Texas A&M startup competition

Spark Biomedical took home first place at the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. Courtesy of Texas A&M

Earlier this month, 16 startups competed in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition for more than $350,000 in cash and in-kind services — the largest pool of prizes in the contest's history.

Houston had a huge presence at TNVC this year. Several Houston startups competed in the technology- and science-focused pitch competition, and the top three prizes were claimed by Houstonians. Of the 13 health and life science companies that were named semifinalists, seven were related to the TMC Innovation Institute.

Here are the Houston companies that walked away from the TNVC with cash and/or prizes.

Spark Biomedical

Friendswood-based medical device company Spark Biomedical took home the top prize at TNVC, which came with a $50,000 check. Spark's technology uses a noninvasive neurostimulation treatment for opioid addiction recovery.

"I'm very humbled and grateful," says Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark, in a release. "This award means a lot because Texas A&M is my alma mater. Being back here is fantastic, and this win is a testament to the work we're doing and our dedication to making a difference with this product."

Spark also was recognized with the Southwest Pediatric Device Prize and the Aggie Angel Network Investment Prize. Recently, Spark announced a partnership with another Houston startup, Galen Data.

SurfEllent

Photo via surfellent.com

Coming in at No. 2 overall and receiving a $35,000 prize was Houston-based advanced coating company, SurfEllent. The company, which is based out of the University of Houston's Technology Park, has designed an anti-icing technology that can be used in any type of situation from de-icing cars to aeronautical applications.

SurfEllent was also recently recognized as one of the top three innovators at NASA's 2017 iTech forum, out of 130 entries across the US.

The company also walked away with the TEEX Product Development Center Prize.

Intelligent Implants

Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Intelligent Implants called Houston home during the 2018 TMCx medical device cohort and still has a presence in town. The company, which created a, implantable wireless device that stimulates bone growth using electrical stimulation, claimed third prize and $25,000.

Last fall, following its success at TMCx, Intelligent Implants was named the "Most Promising Life Science Company" at the 2018 Texas Life Science Forum hosted by the Rice Alliance and BioHouston.

VenoStent

Photo via venostent.com

Another 2018 TMCx medical device cohort member competed at the TNVC and left with fresh funds. VenoStent took fifth place and a $10,000 prize. VenoStent has a device that allows a successful stent implementation on the first try, called the SelfWrap. The device is made from a shape-memory polymer that uses body heat to mold the stent into the vein-artery junction.

VenoStent, which has its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, also won the Ramey & Schwaller IP Legal Services Prize.

PolyVascular

Courtesy of TMC Innovation

Houston-based PolyVascular walked away a big winner of multiple prizes. The company, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, creates polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease.

PolyVascular won the TNVC pitch competition, which came with a $5,000 prize. The startup also walked away with the Biotex Investment Prize, the Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and the GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Ictero Medical

Ictero Medical, which operates out of JLABs at TMC, took home several prizes, including the Thomas | Horstemeyer IP Legal Services Prize, the TMC Accelerator Admission Prize, and the Engineering Vice Chancellor Innovation Prize — a new award that came with a $15,000 prize.

Ictero created the CholeSafe System — a minimally invasive device that treats gallstone disease patients in a procedure with "only minimal local anesthesia to defunctionalize the gallbladder without having to remove it," according to the website.

Sun Co. Tracking

Sun Co. Tracking was the other of the two startups to receive the new Engineering Vice Chancellor's Innovation Prize and its own $15,000 prize. The Houston-based company is developing shape memory alloy actuators for solar panels.

"This unique prize is intended to help the awardees access the world-class engineering capabilities at Texas A&M to obtain technical assistance toward solving their most challenging technical problems in product design, manufacturing or testing," says Dr. Balakrishna Haridas, TEES director for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, in a release.

"These collaborations between the prize winners and Texas A&M Engineering will generate technical data to support on Small Business Innovation Research/grant proposal funding or private capital investments to the company."

GaitIQ

Photo via LinkedIn

GaitIQ is based in San Antonio, but is automatically accepted into TMCx's tenth cohort if they'd like, since the company won the TMC Investment Prize. The company, which created a primary care app that uses artificial intelligence and cloud-based technology, also won sixth place overall and $5,000.

GaitIQ also won the Ark Pharmacies, Inc. Regional Prize, the Hollinden Marketing and Strategists Services Prize, and the Schwegman Lundberg and Woessner IP Legal Services Prize.

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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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