contracting COVID-19

Houston health tech startup providing local governments a coronavirus screening tool

Luminare Inc. pivoted to quickly create an online COVID-19 screening tool, and local governments have tapped into the resource. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Founded in 2014, Houston-based health care software startup Luminare Inc. seeks to prevent sepsis, a life-threatening reaction to a host of infections that causes about one-third of U.S. hospital deaths. Recently, though, Luminare pivoted to address another health concern — the threat of the novel coronavirus.

After the novel coronavirus surfaced, Luminare retooled its sepsis-detection platform to create a free online self-assessment test for people who suspect they've contracted the virus. The test, available at CheckForCorona.com, helps someone figure out whether they should seek a coronavirus test.

An online screening typically takes less than two minutes. The confidential, secure assessment complies with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Based on your assessment results, you might be directed to contact your local health department or, in the worst-case scenario, call 911.

If you take the self-assessment, you'll be quizzed about:

  • Your age.
  • Whether you've had close in-person contact with somebody who's been diagnosed with COVID-19 disease.
  • Whether you've traveled internationally within the past 14 days.
  • Whether you're feeling sick and what symptoms you're experiencing.
  • Whether you live in a nursing home or similar facility.
  • Whether you're a first responder or health care worker.

During an assessment, you can opt to provide your location or not.

Dr. Sarma Velamuri, an internal medicine physician who is co-founder and CEO of Luminare, says he hopes QuickScreen can eventually enable prediction of coronavirus outbreaks based on symptoms such as a fever. QuickScreen enables communities and organizations to collect anonymous data that can help shed light on the transmission and severity of the coronavirus in certain locations.

As of early April, the free assessment, translated into eight languages, had screened close to 100,000 patients around the world.

Luminare teamed up with the Microsoft for Startups program and Harris County Public Health, as well as Durham, North Carolina-based software developer Cognitect Inc., to develop QuickScreen. Velamuri says QuickScreen is available at no cost to communities, government agencies, and health care organizations to help combat the novel coronavirus. QuickScreen aims to decrease ER overcrowding and reduce health care workers' potential exposure to the virus.

QuickScreen "is available to pretty much anyone who wants it," Velamuri says.

Aside from Harris County Public Health, the QuickScreen platform has been adopted by the city of Houston and Fort Bend County. Luminare created a web-based tool for Houston's Healthcare for the Homeless to determine whether homeless people need testing, require quarantining, or need other health care.

A general public version of QuickScreen is available for anyone it use; geographically tailored versions also are offered. The version adopted by Harris County Public Health encompasses 30 counties in and around the Houston metro area, and can point someone to local health care resources.

Velamuri says it took about 20 days to build the coronavirus tool, while Luminare has spent five years developing the sepsis platform. To help cover the cost of QuickScreen, Luminare is seeking donations, given that it's a small company with just 12 employees.

Luminare has temporarily shifted much of its focus toward QuickScreen and away from sepsis-detection platform, which five hospitals currently use. However, that hardly means the startup has given up tackling a deadly problem that represents an estimated 13 percent of all U.S. hospital costs.

Luminare, which is based at the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute and is a graduate of the TMCx accelerator, has raised money through angel investments and friends-and-family funding, Velamuri says. Among its investors is Houston-based VC firm Carnrite Ventures. According to Crunchbase, Luminare's seed round totaled $497,500.

"Our core mission is to stop sepsis that's in hospitals," Velamuri says. "That's why we started the company. That's what we're about."

"The future to us looks very much like continuing to stop people from dying of sepsis," he adds, "and building whatever this pandemic takes to fix from a software perspective. We're just going to keep pushing on that."

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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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