green for green

University of Houston-Downtown receives $250,000 gift to go greener

UHD's science building has received funding from a nonprofit affiliate of Green Mountain Energy to install green energy technology. Courtesy of NRG

The University of Houston-Downtown has gotten some green to make its new College of Sciences & Technology Building even more green.

The Green Mountain Energy Sun Club, a nonprofit affiliated with the Green Mountain Energy utility provider, has pledged more than $250,000 to UHD for installation of solar panels at the building, as well as the purchase of photosynthesis equipment.

Akif Uzman, dean of UHD's College of Sciences & Technology, says in a release that the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club gift propels "our drive to show students and our local community our commitment to energy conservation and sustainable energy practices."

By the spring of 2020, UHD will install a 54-panel, 16.7-kilowatt, off-grid solar system that will help power two environmental science teaching labs in the College of Sciences & Technology Building. One of the labs, the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club Environmental Science Lab, will host classes by next year's spring semester.

"Our mission is to change the way power is made, and we share UHD's dedication to renewable energy, environmental education, and reducing carbon emissions," Mark Parsons, vice president and general manager of Houston-based Green Mountain Energy, says in a release.

Houston-based NRG Energy owns Green Mountain Energy.

Donations to the Sun Club come from Green Mountain Energy and its customers and employees. Since 1997, Green Mountain Energy has promoted energy efficiency, conservation, and environmental stewardship.

The Sun Club gift also will help buy a portable photosynthesis system. Michael Tobin, associate professor of biology, says the equipment will take measurements of plants in courses such as Plant Biology Laboratory, General Ecology Laboratory, and Environmental Lab and Field Studies. In addition, it will be used by students conducting faculty-guided research projects.

"A research-grade instrument to make photosynthesis and water use measurements will enhance students' research experiences and increase the likelihood that their project results can be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal," Tobin says in a release.

UHD opened the College of Sciences & Technology Building in August. It's the first University of Houston System building constructed to meet LEED Gold standards, reflecting a commitment to sustainability features such as energy-efficient lighting, recycled construction materials, and "smart" design components.

Spanning 105,000 square feet, the College of Sciences & Technology Building contains nearly 30 labs for teaching and research, as well as classrooms, meeting and study spaces, and a café. UHD envisions the building will be a "model for sustainability in Houston."

Environmental highlights of the building include a 6,000-gallon cistern that provides water for the outdoor urban gardens, and the addition of native grasses in the surrounding landscape to create a micro-pocket prairie and, in effect, an outdoor classroom.

Aside from classes and resources for students and faculty in biology, biotechnology, biological and physical sciences, and chemistry, the building houses UHD's Center for Urban Agriculture & Sustainability.

The center is "a game changer for UHD initiatives and scholarly activities centered on sustainability," Lisa Morano, director of the Center for Urban Agriculture & Sustainability, says in a release. "It also serves as an example of how planners and architects can incorporate environmentally sound decisions in the design and construction of academic facilities."

Juan Sánchez Muñoz, president of UHD, says the College of Sciences & Technology Building is a hub for academic exploration and a catalyst for community collaboration.

"Its labs and learning spaces will elevate UHD's ability to prepare the next generation of Houston's scientists and innovators. The facility also will serve as a place where Houstonians can gather to address issues affecting our city and to learn how UHD is leading positive change in the region," Muñoz says in a release. "It's a major addition to our campus and an incredible asset to Houston."

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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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