2020 in review

Editor's Picks: Top 7 Houston innovation interviews of 2020

The ultimate who's who of 2020 — favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: With 2020 in the rearview, InnovationMap is looking back on the top stories of the year. With over 60 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast and about half of those being recorded in 2020, here are the top episides from the year.

Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline

With sports went offline, esports startup Mainline saw an opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy of Mainline

What happened when collegiate sport stadiums shut down and seasons were postponed? People started to turn to esports to get their competitive fix. And Houston-based esports tournament software company Mainline saw a huge boost to business.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline, says in a June episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've been very fortunate to work in the industry we do."

On campuses this past spring, colleges are looking for a way to connect with and engage students, Buckner says. And, Mainline has even been able to attract interest on the professional level.

"Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution," Buckner says.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Fiona Mack joined JLABS @ TMC as head of the incubator. Photo courtesy of JLABS

Last year, JLABS @ TMC — a local health tech startup incubator under the Johnson & Johnson arm — welcomed Fiona Mack as the new head of the program. On her plate was assessing the needs of the incubator's 49 member companies in the portfolio and understanding the needs of the Texas innovation ecosystem.

"As I learn more about the history of life science sector in Texas, over the past 20 years there has been an impetuous to build up this critical mass of companies here to really make it a strong hub that competes with the energy sector to make it a pillar of the economy here," Mack says in a November episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

One of the things that's top of mind for Mack is a focus on diversity — both from an entrepreneurship and a representation standpoint.

"From a research perspective, there's a strong effect of having a lack of diversity in a lot of the metrics we're looking at," she shares.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard

Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard, which just raised a $17 million series B round. Courtesy of Liongard

Despite a pandemic that at least in some ways negatively affected venture capital investment, a Houston software startup managed to persevere with a $17 million series B. Liongard's CEO Joe Alapat, who co-founded the company with COO Vincent Tran in 2015, says in a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the round was the result of ongoing relationships with advisers and investors that meant a successful round — even in light of a pandemic.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how they made the pivot from making T-shirts to face masks. Photos courtesy

For years, Megan Eddings, founder and CEO of Accel Lifestyle, worked on perfecting the perfect antibacterial fabric for an anti-stink athletic clothing line, but it only took her a few weeks to pivot toward using the material to make masks.

On a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Eddings and Amanda Cotler, director of operations, shared the story of how this pivot came to be and how they saw the Center for Disease Control was recommending wearing bandanas and cloth when face masks weren't available, they had an epiphany.

"Megan and I read that and immediately hopped on a call with our team," Cotler says. "We had a realization with our antibacterial fabric that a face mask made from it would be so much cleaner."

Within 24 hours, the duo had a sample in their hands, and they had 14,000 yards of their Prema fabric being shipped from California to Houston, where they had managed to find 60 local sewers ready to start making the masks.

Now, with the Houston workforce making moves to return to the workplace, Eddings says she's seen an increased interest in corporations wanting custom masks with the company logo on it for their employees.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Durg Kumar and Allen Bryant,  partners at Knightsgate Ventures

Houston-founded venture capital firm heads into second fund focused on social impact Durg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

Durg Kumar founded Knightsgate Ventures in order to find and fund startups with a social impact and a profitable business strategy. The Houston-based firm was founded in Houston and has since expanded to add a New York partner, Allen Bryant, to the operation. The duo joined the Houston Innovators Podcast in November.

"For a very long time, there was a perceived trade off between social returns and financial returns," Bryant says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we are seeing now is that's really not the case. You actually have businesses that are bringing impactful change and those businesses are propelled by that."

The VC's first fund invested in six startups — including Houston-based Voyager — and is now heading into its second fund. Kumar says the first fund's success was in part due to his network. Now heading into the second go around, Knightsgate's network has grown with the addition of Bryant.

The end of the year, Kumar and Bryant were focused on helping their portfolio startups focus on the next year.

"Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joy M. Hutton, local leader of the Grow with Google in Houston

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

In November, when Google announced it was expanding its Grow with Google Digital Coach program to Houston, Joy M. Hutton was named the local leader. The entrepreneur and business consultant is hoping to help provide important business resources to entrepreneurs just like herself.

"In Houston, you have a lot of different resources that weren't available to startups before just within the past few years, and I think that's huge," Hutton says in a December episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Being more inclusive with people who need the resources who haven't traditionally had access to those resources is a big initiative. I personally am proud to be a part of that."

Hutton specifically calls out resources like MassChallenge and Founder's Institute — both of which she serves as a mentor for — as well as DivInc, gBeta, and of course the Grow with Google program. To get involved, Houston entrepreneurs can head online to learn more and keep an eye out for monthly classes online — and hopefully, in the future, in person events as well.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Kyle Judah, executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Kyle Judah joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his new role. Photo courtesy of Lilie

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says in a September episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Trending News

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.

Trending News