The future of tech

Houston university creates program to fill the need for cyber engineering professionals

Houston Baptist University has created a program that is training the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. Courtesy of HBU

A few years ago, Houston Baptist University realized there was a huge need for more engineering programs within Houston higher education in one area particularly: Cybersecurity.

The school brought in Stan Napper from Louisiana Tech University to become the founding dean of the College of Engineering. The college now has three bachelor's degree programs in cyber engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science.

"Cyber engineering is designing secure systems at the interface of operational technology and information technology," says Napper. "Cyber engineering is in the middle of devices and data. It's in the middle of the hardware and software. And, academically, it's in the middle of electrical engineering and computer science."

The program is the only of its kind in Texas, Napper says. In fact, he says he doesn't know of any other similar programs other than the one he was a part of at Louisiana Tech. However, he does expect that to change. There's a growing need for cybersecurity specialists — especially in the health care and energy industries.

"One of those things that really got my attention a couple of years ago is in 2017, the FDA issued a recall on the over 450,000 pacemakers that had already been implanted," Napper says. "Modern pacemakers now can be controlled remotely through the skin to change the pacing frequency or some other parameters of that pacemaker without having to go back and do another surgery. They discovered a software glitch to a particular brand of pacemaker that could have been exploited."

Thankfully, that glitch wasn't exploited, but it put thousands of people's lives at risk by those technology designers not foreseeing this cybersecurity glitch. Anywhere devices — not just computers or phones — are used remotely or on a network, security is compromised.

Napper has only one year of the program under his belt, but he says he has already seen a lot of interest from the school's advisory board, which is made up of 75 CTO and tech leaders.

"They're lining up to get our students as interns even before we have the students ready," Napper says. "We've only finished our first freshman class."

Napper says the program is on track to have a capacity of 200 to 250 students. At a school like HBU, which has around 3,400 total students, that's a huge chunk of the school's population. Some think the program, considering the need and reception, could grow to 1,000 students.

The courses cover everything within operational and intellectual technology — device design, data science, automation, artificial intelligence — and the students are already getting their hands dirty.

"Our approach to education is learning in context. It is very hands on, but it's not hands off or hands on sake," Napper says. "There's no single class in our inventory of courses where one person stands at the front and talks the whole time. Our students carry their lab with them to class. We changed the definition of a lab. A lab is not the place you go to once a week in order to write a lab report."

This fall, the school will have its inaugural class in sophomore-level courses and a new batch of freshmen. Down the road, Napper says they'll look into creating a master's program.

Michael Tims / Houston Bapitst U

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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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