Startup studs

MassChallenge Texas announces the 26 companies in its inaugural Houston cohort

Midway's GreenStreet in downtown will be the site of MassChallenge Texas' Houston program. Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

Since announcing its entrance into the Houston innovation market in January, MassChallenge Texas has been scoring the city — and the rest of the world — for the accelerator programs inaugural cohort. Now, the organization is ready to announce its 26 startups ahead of the program's July 22 launch.

The 26 companies come from three countries and six states, and half have female founders. The startups are mostly within the health care and high tech industries — eight companies reside in each of those categories. Two companies are energy related, and one company has a social impact focus. The remaining seven companies are categorized as "general," according to the release.

"We have an incredibly diverse cohort of startups for our first MassChallenge Texas in Houston program," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in the news release. "The startups cross five industries, where 50 percent of the startups come from outside of Houston bringing talent from innovation hubs like New York, San Francisco, and Switzerland. Proving that Houston's global reach is not just for the Fortune 500 and that startups are looking for their place in the global economy, something that Houston is uniquely suited to offer."

As a part of MassChallenge, the selected startups aren't asked for equity in order to participate, and free coworking space, more than $250K in deals and discounts, and more prizes await the top companies at the conclusion of the six-week programming.

Throughout the accelerator, MassChallenge will provide training, guidance, and corporate connections with a large network of companies, such as Southwest Airlines, TMAC, WeWork, USAA, Upstream, Central Houston, the City of Houston, Lionstone, Midway, BAE Systems, BHP, Ingram Micro, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Houston Texans. Houston-based Reliant, an NRG company, is the latest corporate partner to join those ranks, according to the release.

Over 280 companies applied for the program, says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development for Central Houston, in the release, a clear indication for him that the Houston program was a good decision for both the city and MassChallenge.

"When we set out to find a partner to support our innovation initiatives, we were seeking a catalyst for Houston's innovation ecosystem," Pieroni says in the release. "We knew we needed an organization that matched Houston's global reach and our passion for bringing creative ideas to life through business."

Without further adieu, here are the 26 companies that begin their MassChallenge journey on July 22:

  • AeroGenics (Iowa,)
  • AeroMINE (Texas,): AeroMINE is a motionless wind turbine created for the building environment. It installs like solar panels but is more cost effective.
  • Animatus Biosciences, LLC (Texas): Animatus Biosciences is an R&D company focusing on the development of unique regenerative therapeutics based on our modified mRNA platform.
  • Ask Doss (Texas): DOSS is a Real Estate Operations System (ReOS) that will radically simplify how people search (voice activated) and transact real estate.
  • Bell Analytics (Texas)
  • Bright Angle (Texas): Bright Angle is a Pinterest style activity platform for teachers, students, parents, and admins that is the "chalkboard" of the 21st century
  • Camppedia Inc. (Texas): Camppedia plans to disrupt the $18B children's camps industry and in the process improve the lives of millions of working parents.
  • Captain (Texas): Captain is a user-friendly, multi-sided platform that connects outdoor sports adventurers and guides.
  • Celise (Virginia): Celise is a compostable disposables company in the foodservice industry that aims to replace and eliminate single-use plastic waste.
  • Combined Arms [CAX-X] (Texas): Combined Arms is a forward-thinking nonprofit that is committed to unleashing the impact of veterans on Houston.
  • DoBrain (Republic of Korea): DoBrain is a children's diagnosis app that detects neuropsychological markers indicative of developmental delays.
  • Door Space Inc. (Texas): Door Space built a cloud-based platform that automates professional credential management and verification for clinicians and their employers.
  • ElecTrip (Texas): ElecTrip offers city-to-city, door-to-door transportation services in private-professionally driven Teslas with Wi-Fi and laptop charging. Book online to any major Texas-based city.
  • FloodFrame (Texas): FloodFrame is a concealed flood protection system that utilizes the natural buoyant force of water to deploy and protect your home.
  • Māk Studio (Texas): Māk Studio is a fabrication studio in the heart of Houston. We design and fabricate custom walls and furniture for commercial interiors.
  • NeuroRescue (Ohio): NeuroRescue improves the standard of care used to treat stroke, brain injury, and cardiac arrest to increase neurological outcome by up to forty-percent.
  • Noleus Technologies Inc. (Texas): Noleus is a novel medical device that reduces post op ileus, saves post op hospital days and accelerates patient recovery
  • ORDRS (Texas)
  • PTC Wizard (New York): PTC Wizard helps K-12 schools streamline their scheduling and sign-up process thereby improving parent involvement and decreasing overhead.
  • RehabMaker Corp. (California): Rehabmaker is a manufacturer of exercise equipment that attaches to wheelchairs and allows people to move their legs.
  • Reveal Technologies (Texas)
  • Sensytec Inc. (Texas): Sensytec is revolutionizing the oil & gas, and construction industries by bringing smart cement technologies and real-time data collection.
  • Swoovy (Texas): Swoovy is a mobile app that connects single people and volunteer opportunities with nonprofits, as a date.
  • Waterdata (Ticino, Switzerland): Waterdata offers Liquidprice, an Intelligent pricing software that optimizes prices with AI by adapting to customers, competitors and market behavior quickly.
  • WellWorth (Texas)
  • Zero5 (California)

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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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