No pain, just gain

Houston company creates portable device that eases pain without the use of drugs

For years, Squid Compression has helped ease the pain of patients in doctor's offices. Now, anyone can get the treatment on the go. Photo via squidgo.com

Many of the estimated 50 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain turn to drugs — including heavily abused opioids — to relieve their symptoms. Houston-based startup Portable Therapeutix LLC's drug-free solution to pain management seeks to put a dent in the market for prescription painkillers.

In 2018, Houston-based Portable Therapeutix introduced Squid Go, a portable device that's designed to ease the pain and swelling of sore joints and muscles. It's a follow-up to the company's Squid Compression, a pain management device launched in 2013 for patients at rehabilitation centers, hospitals, doctor's offices, and the like.

Squid Go enables consumers to apply two approaches — cold therapy and compression therapy — to relieving joint pain and swelling caused by arthritis, bouncing back from athletic activities, or recovering from an injury or surgery involving muscles and joints. Variations of the device can treat ankle, back, leg, knee, shoulder, or wrist pain.

To reap the benefits of Squid Go, a consumer uses the device for just 15 minutes. Squid Go — which combines a cold gel pack with proprietary compression technology — features special air pockets that inflate and deflate, gently massaging the body part needing treatment. That massaging boosts circulation and reduces swelling.

"Increased circulation brings more nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to the area, promoting recovery," says Sam Stolbun, co-founder of Portable Therapeutix. "Meanwhile, [the] gentle compression also drives the pain-relieving cold from the gel pack deeper into the tissues to alleviate soreness and discomfort."

The coldness of the gel pack fights inflammation.

Stolbun says someone can take the lightweight, portable Squid Go device to the office, to the gym or anywhere else for on-the-go pain relief. It even can be used without the cold gel pack for compression-only therapy to improve circulation and decrease swelling. The Squid Go pump delivers about 15 treatments before it needs to be recharged.

Squid Compression received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a prescription-only device in 2013 and gained over-the-counter status in 2014. The consumer version, Squid Go, employs the same technology and operates the same way as Squid Compression, so a second FDA stamp of approval wasn't required.

Pricing for the heavy-duty Squid Compression system starts at $700. The consumer-friendly Squid Go system goes for $300 or $350, depending on its purpose. Users can buy extra wraps and gel packs to supplement the system.

Stolbun says he and co-founder Shai Schubert developed the Squid devices after realizing that existing pain-fighting cold packs provided only superficial relief, while water-based treatments were inconvenient and offered no compression advantages. Still other cold and compression therapies on the market are expensive and generally aren't covered by health insurance, he says.

Stolbun says that "it became apparent that a reasonably priced, well-made, portable, and effective pain relief and recovery device would meet a need for a broad range of consumers — from athletes to seniors."

Stolbun, a sports enthusiast and bakery mogul, and Schubert, a scientist and entrepreneur, established Portable Therapeutix in 2011.

The company's debut product, Squid Compression, still enjoys success, but Stolbun says the company has shifted its focus to Squid Go. Portable Therapeutix plans to pump up sales for Squid Go via its online presence, he says, as well as through physical therapists, sports trainers and other professionals who've used Squid Compression but want to offer the less pricey Squid Go model to their clients for in-home treatment.

Portable Therapeutix is backed by private investors; the amount of funding it has received isn't available. The company doesn't release revenue and profit figures.

Today, the company employs just one person in Houston but will add workers as its distribution pipeline expands, Stolbun says. Sales, marketing, and customer service representatives are scattered around the country. Stolbun, the CEO, is based in Houston, while Schubert, the chief technical officer, is based in Boston.

Portable Therapeutix relies, in part, on word-of-mouth praise to promote Squid Go. Among those hailing the device is Lee Ward of Houston, who describes himself as a competitive tennis player.

On the Squid Go website, Ward explains that he'd been suffering from progressively worsening tendonitis in his knees for a couple of years.

"I tried a number of remedies, including ice and gel packs, immediately following my tennis workout, but both remedies were ineffective and difficult to use," Ward says in his online testimonial.

He then discovered Squid Go and became a fan.

"The best thing about [Squid Go] is its ease of use. It provides a quick, effective treatment that makes it ideal for daily use by both the serious and recreational athlete," Ward says.

Smart tech

Courtesy of Squid Go

Squid Go combines a cold gel pack with proprietary compression technology and features special air pockets that inflate and deflate, gently massaging the body part needing treatment.

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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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