pitch perfect

Female founders win big at this Houston health tech pitch competition

Ria Health took home first place at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition. Courtesy of Ignite Healthcare

All it takes is a spark for something to ignite, and, at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition by the Ignite Healthcare Network, eight female founders set the stage on fire.

The Fire Pitch Competition first started in 2017 to shine a spotlight on female entrepreneurs in health care. With two successful events under her belt, Ayse McCracken says she knew she could do more to help these women with their business ideas.

"What we discovered is that it's not enough. Startups get to pitch all over, and they want to invest their time wisely," McCracken says. "And it's not enough for the rest of the ecosystem — the customers — and the investors want companies that actually are investable."

So, this summer, McCracken and her team launched a mini accelerator. Thirteen companies participated in the Fire Pitch Customer-Partner Program that matched the companies with potential customers, pilot opportunities, and more. Participating customer organizations have included Humana, Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann Health System, Gallagher, Texas Children's Hospital, Texas Children's Pediatrics, DePelchin, Next Level Urgent Care, University of Houston College of Medicine, VillageMD, and The Menninger Clinic.

Then, eight finalists of the group were selected to go on to pitch at the Fire Pitch.

Also new this year: More cash prizes. In previous years, the Fire Pitch has around $20,000 on the table. This year's awards doled out $265,000 in cash and investment prizes to six of the eight companies that pitched. The panel of five judges included: Babs Carryer, entrepreneur, and director of Big Idea Center for the University of Pittsburgh's Innovation Institute; Tom Luby, director of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute; Kerry Rupp, partner at True Wealth Ventures; Sarah Sossong, principal at Flare Capital Partners; and Andrew Truscott, managing director for Health and Public Service at Accenture.

Here's which companies took home prizes at the 2019 Fire Pitch Competition at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute on October 17.

First place: Ria Health

Ria Health, a San Francisco-based elemental health practice that uses technology and care to provide treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder, was the big winner at the pitch event.

Jen Douglas, CFO of the company, took home first place and the $15,000 prize from Ignite Healthcare Network, but the company also snagged one of the new awards this year. The Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute awarded Ria Health with a $50,000 investment prize. Ria Health previously participated in the TMCx08 digital health cohort, so the team is very familiar with Houston and the TMC.

Second place: SoundScouts

Sydney, Australia-based SoundScouts is on a mission to help early detection of hearing in school aged children. Carolyn Mee, founder and CEO, represented the company on the stage. She took home second place, which didn't come with an investment or cash prize.

Third place: Savonix

Savonix also didn't walk away with any money, but was recognized by the judges for founder and CEO Mylea Charvet's pitch. The San Francisco-based company is a digital cognitive assessment platform that can easily and cheaply gauge cognitive function.

Texas Halo Fund $100,000 award: PATH EX

The biggest winner of the night based on investment size was Houston-based PATH EX. Led by CEO and co-founder, Sinead Miller, PATH EX has a solution to hospitals' biggest killers: Sepsis. The current TMCx company has a unique pathogen extraction platform that can directly capture and eradicate bacteria.

Miller accepted a new award for this year's program that came with a $100,000 investment from the Texas Halo Fund.

Texas Halo Fund $50,000 award: PyrAmes 

One award wasn't enough for the Texas Halo Fund, which handed out a second new award to Cupertino, California-based PyrAmes. Presented by co-founder and CTO, Xina Quan, the company has created a wearable blood pressure monitor that is reliable and nonintrusive to patients. Quan accepted the $50,000 investment from the fund.

Houston Angel Network $50,000 award: Materna Medical 

San Francisco-base Materna Medical, which created a device to help protect and prepare expecting mothers' pelvic health ahead of childbirth, took home the last investment prize. President and CEO Tracy MacNeal presented the company and accepted the Houston Angel Network's $50,000 award.

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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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