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MassChallenge Texas names top startups from its inaugural Houston cohort to move on to the final round

MassChallenge Texas named six companies, which will each pitch at a final competition on September 5. Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas revealed the cream of the crop from its first Houston cohort. The top six startups will now be judged in one final pitch competition on September 5.

"Each of the 25 startups in our first cohort have made incredible progress during this short program and are now better prepared to make impact in Houston, Texas, and beyond," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in a release. "It is our goal to strengthen the local ecosystem through a collaborative community that will attract innovators from around the world to Houston, and the Lone Star State."

The program, which began on July 26, accelerated 25 early-stage companies from around the world with mentorship, corporate partnerships, curriculum, and more. No equity was taken by the program and it's free for the selected companies to attend.

"It is an honor to support the inaugural MassChallenge Texas accelerator in Houston and the incredible journey these startups have been on," says Elizabeth Killinger, president of Reliant and NRG Retail, in a release. "We're excited to be part of the thriving startup culture in Houston, and we look forward to all that this program will continue to bring to our city."

A panel of judges selected the top six, and now they face off for a set of prizes, which will be revealed at the Houston Finale. According to a spokesperson, the judges ahead of the event will decide on the winning company or companies and delegate prizes as they see fit.

The companies involved with supporting the accelerator include: Southwest Airlines, TMAC, WeWork, Upstream, USAA, BAE Systems, Brex, BHP, Central Houston, City of Houston, Houston Texans, Ingram Micro, Lionstone Investments, Midway, Reliant, San Antonio Spurs, Winstead Attorneys. Event and media partners are Insperity, Mattress Firm, Southwest Research Institute, Juice Consulting and Texas Squared Startup Newsletter.

FloodFrame

Houston-based FloodFrame is a company that provides self-deploying flood protection devices for residential and commercial real estate properties. Read more about the company here.

Mak Studio

Another Houston company — Mak Studio — makes the top startups list. The company provides interior design efforts made easy.

Neuro Rescue Inc.

NeuroRescue Inc. is an Ohio-based company that 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.

Houston-based Noleus Technologies Inc. — a member of the TMCx07 cohort — has created a solution that reduces swelling in the bowels after operation. The disposable device is inserted into the abdomen at the time of surgery, and folds up like a fan to be removed without another surgery.

Reveal Technologies

Another Houston-based medical device company making it into MC's top 6 companies is Reveal Technologies, which uses a dual camera technology to help the 17 million Americans who suffer from retinal diseases to improve their sight.

Sensytec Inc.

Last but not least is Houston-based Sensytec Inc. The company has a "smart concrete" technology that is making moves in the energy industry.

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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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