2019 in review

Editor's picks: 5 best Houston innovation interviews of 2019

As the Houston innovation ecosystem prepares for 2020, InnovationMap's editor looks back on her favorite interviews of this year. Courtesy photos

Ever since the launch of InnovationMap, the site has featured an innovator weekly. That's over 50 interviews and more than a dozen episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast, which launched this fall.

As editor of InnovationMap and the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast, I've conducted nearly all of these interviews. And, while parents aren't allowed to pick favorites between their children, I definitely have my favorite interviews. Looking back on this year, I've had the fortune of talking to innovators from all corners of Houston and across industries.

Looking back on 2019, I've plucked out my five favorites, and I thought I'd share why they stood out to me. I'm excited to continue these conversations in 2020 as Houston's innovation ecosystem grows — and as InnovationMap grows with it.

Samantha Lewis, director of The GOOSE Society of Texas

Samantha Lewis

Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

When I think of my favorite conversations I've had this year, Samantha Lewis immediately comes to my mind. If you've ever had the fortune of meeting Sam, you know her as high energy, kind, and full of opinions — all of these qualities make for a great interview, and, in this case, podcast episode.

Samantha's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast was only the second to be released, but, just due to scheduling, was actually the first episode I ever recorded. And, despite it's early release, is still the most listened to of the 13 that now are available. I credit Sam's candor, poise, and insight for that.

In the episode, Samantha and I discuss GOOSE's recent investments, her advice for startups looking for funding, the state of venture capital in Houston — and how it compares to the two coasts, and more. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

This past summer, the Space City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — 50 years since "Houston" was uttered from the surface of the moon. July brought many space celebrations as the city, state, and even country looked back on the legacy of the aerospace industry.

I took this anniversary as a chance to dive into the innovation of the industry on InnovationMap with a series of interviews with various space professionals. I spoke with the general manager of Houston's Spaceport, the founder of a Houston-based space startup, and Rice University's Space Institute director, but my favorite discussion I had about space was with Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA.

Steven was so interesting to talk to because his job really represents the future of space exploration. As space travel shifts into the commercial space rather than just within the government-backed NASA operations, the need for the sharing of technology, research, and ideas is crucial. Through NASA's technology transfer, Steven is helping that effort. To read our full conversation, click here.

Ody De La Paz, founder of Sensytec

Courtesy of Sensytec

Throughout my now near 15 months at InnovationMap, I've had a growing appreciation of the guts and gumption it takes to take the leap and start a company. I love interviewing entrepreneurs — they all have such different perspectives on similar startup challenges. One of my favorite entrepreneur interviews I had this year was with Ody De La Paz, who founded Sensytec.

Ody started his company when he was an undergrad student at the University of Houston. Most college students just trying to get an entry-level job somewhere — anywhere, but Ody would go on to travel the world pitching — and winning — in competitions for Sensytec's technology, which is smart cement that can communicate risks for potential life-threatening damage.

Ody was my first startup founder guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and, if we're keeping track, still is the second most listened to episode behind Sam's episode. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Courtesy of HX

This year, Houston Exponential — the city's nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting innovation in Houston — hired a new president. Harvin Moore joined the team to take HX into its next stage of attracting tech companies into the ecosystem.

Several months into his position, we sat down to discuss how he was doing and what some of his goals were for the organization. I admire Harvin's passion for the city. A serial entrepreneur and investor, he has a great frame of reference for startups, and his first point of action was to listen — to the ecosystem and its members — for what the city really wants and needs from its innovation leadership.

Our conversation was over an hour and bounced from HX and Houston startups to New York's real estate and the profitability of local journalism. Of course, not all that ended up in the article, but I look forward to seeing what all Harvin has up his sleeves for 2020. To read our full conversation, click here.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

It's rare that I interview someone for the Featured Innovator section twice. In fact, I've only doubled up three times. Though, I'm sure it will continue to happen as InnovationMap and the Houston Innovators Podcast grows. Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital, was one of my interviews I've doubled up on this year — once for a Q&A and once for the Houston Innovators Podcast.

It's pretty easy to find new things to discuss with Roberta. Houston Methodist seems to constantly be launching new technology pilots within the system — from virtual reality in cancer treatment to telemedicine. Plus, just personally, Roberta is extremely interesting. At 27, she was diagnosed with a vicious strand of breast cancer — despite having no family history of the disease.

After getting through some of her early treatments, she co-founded an organization that helps to connect young women who were similarly diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. I'm 28, and cannot fathom the cancer battle Roberta survived and the foresight she had to create an organization like she did. To read more on our most recent conversation or stream the episode, click here.

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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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