2020 in review

Here are Houston's top 5 health innovation stories of the year

COVID-19-related stories topped this year's health tech trending articles on InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. The medical world has had a busy year amid the pandemic, and health tech innovation has never been more important. InnovationMap's top stories of the year included a new academic psychiatric hospital, Houston-based COVID-19 innovations, and more.

These 7 Houston health tech companies are providing COVID-19 solutions

These Houston startups have created health care-related solutions amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

It's all hands on deck in Houston in the battle against coronavirus — and local biotech startups have risen to the occasion.

From mental health solutions and online portals to virtual medicine and new treatments, these Houston companies have recently launched or pivoted to new options in health care. Click here to continue reading.

Houston to be home to the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country

The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center, set to open next year, will be unlike anything in Houston. Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Film and TV portrayals of psychiatric hospitals have driven a narrative based in cold, clinical rooms and unwelcoming corridors. That picture couldn't be more inaccurate when it comes to Houston's first public mental health hospital in more than three decades. Breaking stigmas and setting a new bar for design, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is set to open its doors in late 2021.

UTHealth has brought on architecture firm Perkins and Will to design the upcoming mental health facility. The behavioral health campus will be the largest facility of its kind in the United States, becoming a place to train future physicians and specialists. Located near Texas Medical Center, the space will consist of two buildings connected by a glazed bridge, surrounded by a tranquil green space.

The 220,000-square-foot facility includes 264 new inpatient beds and will provide access to mental healthcare, substance use intervention and treatment, and medical care via integrated treatment programs. Click here to continue reading.

Photos: Houston Methodist opens new hub to showcase health tech of the future

The Center for Innovation at Houston Methodist has opened its new Technology Hub to showcase its efforts to advance digital health. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist is regularly exploring new digital health technologies, but, until recently, lacked a proper space to demonstrate their vision for the future of health care. Now, with the Center for Innovation's Technology Hub, the hospital has just that.

The tech hub opened earlier this month in Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more.

"Basically this space is like a laboratory for digital health innovations," says Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist. "It's an opportunity to bring doctors, administrators, and subject matter experts to talk through what digital health could be at Houston Methodist."

The tech hub has re-imagined the experiences patients have and demonstrated the effect technology can have in various experiences — from the waiting room or outpatient care to at-home health and a voice control-optimized patient room. There's a virtual reality demo room that showcases the hospital's use of VR for distraction therapy, as well as for a doctor to demonstrate a surgical procedure for his or her patient. Click here to continue reading.

Houston organization names 10 most promising life sciences startups

Here's which life science companies — in Houston and beyond — are ones to watch. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Last week, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship gathered over 1,000 life science experts and attendees virtually for thought leadership as well as 40 company presentations.

The three-day 2020 Virtual Texas Life Science Forum was made possible through a partnership with BioHouston and support from Texas Medical Center and Insperity. At the close of the summit, several companies were recognized with awards.

Houston-based Starling Medical won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The digital health device company is revolutionizing severe bladder dysfunction management with artificial intelligence.

Every year at the forum, the Rice Alliance names its 10 most promising companies working on developing innovative solutions in medical devices, digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutics. This year, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, says they had more applications to present than ever before. Additionally, the presenting companies — about half of which are Houston-based — have already raised more than $275 million in funding. Click here to continue reading.

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release. Click here to continue reading.

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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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