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Houston fintech founder: It's time to rewire our digital infrastructure

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. Getty Images

As the United States looks to reopen from an unprecedented shutdown caused by a global pandemic, conversations amongst government and policy bodies are slowly switching to how they will support the economy in the long term. There is a need to improve infrastructure, strengthen the supply chain, increase economic resiliency, etc.

Indeed, the speed of the economic shock caused by COVID-19 highlighted the fragility of many key systems and processes, impacting the ability of the federal and state governments to distribute economic relief funds, manage healthcare capacity, and support small businesses.

There is no better illustration of this fragility in the system than the sudden spike in demand for COBOL programmers. COBOL is a decades-old programming language that was used to write mainframe applications. Apparently over half of the states in the U.S., including California and New York, rely on applications written in a language first introduced in 1959 for their critical state systems.

There is clearly a need to modernize the public services technology infrastructure, not only in expectation of future pandemic-driven disruptions but to increase efficiency and reduce costs nationally. The private sector can and should play an important role in bringing modern technology into the critical parts of the economy.

But that requires a closer collaboration between state governments and technology firms to identify the best and most efficient way forward. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things can dramatically reshape and improve public sector technology infrastructure while providing broader benefits to the state economies.

The critical first step in building this public-private partnership is to educate and engage state officials and legislators on specific technologies that can be put to use.

On April 29, I attended a virtual meeting organized by Texas Blockchain Committee (TBC) and hosted by the office of State Representative Tan Parker. In attendance, there were individuals and organizations based in Texas that are involved in developing practical applications of blockchain technology. What was also encouraging was that there were quite a few members of the State Legislature in attendance.

Here are a few key points that are worth highlighting from the meeting:

  • There is growing recognition and acceptance that blockchain is a technology that has wide applications outside of the cryptocurrency world. In fact, during the meeting, no one mentioned Bitcoin or crypto-trading.
  • Texas is aiming to explore ways to be at the forefront of blockchain technology adoption and be the leader among the states in promoting Blockchain innovation. Back in 2018 at the height of ICO and cryptocurrency mania, The Brooking Institution labeled Texas as reactionary when it comes to blockchain. Since then the state attitude has changed, in many ways thanks to Representative Parker and his push to initiate a proper study of blockchain's applicability at the state level.
  • There are many Texas-based companies with deep technical expertise and know-how in the blockchain. Some even moved their operations from other parts of the country to Texas in order to scale their businesses.
  • Whether it is related to the distribution of relief funds for businesses or individuals impacted by COVID -19, improvements in the way the healthcare industry handles patient data or other areas that require secure and transparent record management, blockchain is gaining attention as a technology to modernize critical digital infrastructure.
  • Particular attention was given to the efforts in other countries to bring blockchain technology into mainstream adoption. For example, China launched its nationwide Blockchain Services Network (BSN) in April of this year and is looking to bring digital central bank currency online early next year. The Chinese BSN is a result of joint efforts by the government, regulators, and private sector companies – a model that could work very well in the U.S. and in Texas.
  • It is worth noting that at the federal level there are currently over 30 blockchain-related bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. While a majority of these bills are focusing on the regulation of cryptocurrencies, there are a few that aim to promote the study of blockchain usage more broadly.

As a Texas-based fintech company that has been using Blockchain for the past three years, we are very encouraged by the broad interest in this technology. The Texas Blockchain Committee, led by Lee Bratcher and Karen Kilroy, has managed to pull together many individuals and companies to participate in this exciting effort.

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. However, in order for us to leverage technology during harder times, we need to invest in properly applying it during stable times.

I believe this is a step in the right direction for Texas, and I hope we are able to expand the adoption of this technology, where relevant, at a national level. A coordinated national effort to study how technology, blockchain or otherwise, can help us be better prepared for our country's future.

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Rashad Kurbanov is the CEO and co-founder of Houston-based iownit capital and markets, a digital investment platform for private securities.

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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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