rolling out

Innovative library on wheels brings tech lab and resources to Houston communities that need it most

When seven Houston Public Libraries were damaged during Hurricane Harvey, the library system rolled out its resources to the communities that needed it most. Photo courtesy of Houston Public Library Foundation

To those that think the Houston Public Library has a dearth of innovation, think again.

"If people don't think libraries are relevant, they just need to visit one," says Sally Swanson, executive director of the Houston Public Library Foundation. "The 21st century library really is a technology hub.

"The libraries here in Houston have been around over a hundred years, but regardless of what decade it was in, it has always kept up with the needs of the community, therefore it always has to be innovative."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, seven libraries across Houston were forced to close due to extreme flood damage. To mitigate the loss, the HPL decided to modernize its Mobile Express Unit, a custom-built technology lab and library on wheels designed to bring access to technology and programs to high-need neighborhoods.

"Even though the hurricane was two years ago, the damage in Houston was so extensive, that only one of those seven locations has reopened," says Swanson. "The other ones are still in need, so having the Mobile Express now will bridge that gap until the city is able to reconstruct or reopen those closed locations.

"Thanks to the renovated Mobile Express, we'll be able to go to community centers, to schools and to other events. Basically, we're bringing the library to the people."

With the help of The Brown Foundation Inc., John P. McGovern Foundation, The Powell Foundation, corporate partner Crown Castle and thousands of donations from generous Houstonians, the HPL will use the $325,000 vehicle outfitted with advanced programmatic features to expand services to a growing waiting list of neighborhoods in need.

"We couldn't have done this without the generosity of the Houston community," says Swanson. "The vehicle itself was $325,000 and there was another $30,000 added in for technology. I would really like to thank our significant donors that made this vehicle possible. Thanks to that outpouring of support, this is now our reality."

The Mobile Express Unit, which will begin venturing out and serving the community in early February, has three touchscreen monitors, one desktop tower, 12 student Apple MacBook laptops and 10 iPads in a training room, eight tech lab workstations and a 3D printer.

"Even though we've had the public debut, it hasn't started accepting appointments yet," says Swanson. "The Mobile Express is operated through the Houston Public Library's Community Engagement division. They will have the online schedule and they have a driver and a program team that will go out and bring activities to people. The beauty of this is that it's free to the public."

As a fun way to get the word out, the HPL is sponsoring a contest for kids to name the Mobile Express Unit's robot mascot. Kids that enter the vehicle will be able to use the mascot to learn robotics and whoever wins the naming contest will receive that same robot, with five runners up receiving five slightly smaller versions of the robot.

"The beauty of the Mobile Express is its versatility," says Swanson. "There is a need for getting kids engaged in STEM activities and while some kids are very computer proficient, there are others that don't have access to the equipment. There will be learning at every stage and kids will be able to go on the vehicle, experiment with the different platforms and be part of the technology.

"There will be computer classes, coding classes and 3D printing workshops, so anyone, no matter their level of skills will be able to go on and actually have a real positive hands-on experience."

The Mobile Express, which can serve up to 24 participants or expand its interior walls to accommodate more, has an outdoor flat screen for dance sessions or for showing the instruction that is being held on the inside.

With its improved classroom flow and comfortable and engaging environment, the Mobile Express is able to offer English as a Second Language classes, workforce development classes, sewing workshops and pop-up library activities.

The mobile library and technology lab on wheels has no restrictions on its service area, so it can go into every neighborhood and corner of Houston and serve the public where it is needed the most.

"Every stop the Mobile Express makes is a continued investment into the Houston community," says Swanson. "A lot of people take for granted that everyone has equal access to online resources, but there's a lot of families that are having trouble making ends meet and they don't have internet in their home.

"The Houston Public Library has always been really good about finding creative and innovative ways of bringing services to the community."

For those that can't wait to make an appointment with the Mobile Express, there's always the neighborhood brick-and-mortar library.

"I welcome everyone in Houston to just go visit their local library," says Swanson. "They will be very surprised when they walk in and they see how many people are there reading or on computer terminals. They'll also be surprised by the library's focus on technology."

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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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