Research roundup

3 Houston tech research projects changing health care, blockchain, and beyond

What's the latest in tech research in Houston? Here are three revolutionary research projects happening right under our noses. Getty Images

Tons of research happens daily at various Houston institutions — from life-saving medical developments to high tech innovations that will affect the greater business community.

In this Houston research roundup, three research projects from three Houston organizations are set to revolutionize their respective industries.

University of Houston researcher explores potential disruption in blockchain

blockchain

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A huge technology question mark within business has been blockchain — how it'll affect the sharing of information and industry as a whole. But, one University of Houston professor and his Texas A&M University colleagues are looking into that potential disruption in a recent paper.

"It's an emerging technology. It's evolving," says Weidong "Larry" Shi, associate professor of computer science at UH, in a UH news release.

Funded by the Borders, Trade, and Immigration Institute, the research has developed into the paper, which was published in the International Journal of Production Research.

A key focus of the research is how blockchain will affect cargo entering the United States, and identifies six pain points within adapting blockchain for cargo management: traceability, dispute resolution, cargo integrity and security, supply chain digitalization, compliance, and trust and stakeholder management, according to the release.

"The wide adoption of blockchain technology in the global SC (supply chain) market is still in its infancy," the article reads. "Industry experts project that on average, it may take about six years for the widespread adoption of blockchain."

Blockchain has the potential to prevent fraud within the global supply chain, among other things.

"The data can't be changed. Everyone (along the supply chain) has a copy. You can add information, but you can't change it," Shi says in the release.

The U.S. Army taps Rice University for network research

Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University and the U.S. Army have joined forces for a five-year, $30 million research agreement to modernize the Army — specifically for developing next-generation wireless networks and radio frequency (RF) electronics.

"[The Army Research Laboratory] and Rice will match the right people and capabilities to meet specific challenges, and the cooperative agreement is structured to allow the Army to partner widely across our campus," says Yousif Shamoo, Rice's vice president of research and lead on the ARL partnership, in a recent news release. "One exciting aspect of this partnership is the broader societal benefits. The technologies we're starting with are needed for Army modernization and they could also benefit millions of Americans in communities that still lack high-speed internet."

Without going into too much detail, the two entities are working to advance the Army's existing infrastructure to create networks that can sense attacks and protect themselves by adaption or stealth. The technology has the potential to affect the Army as well as civilians, says Heidi Maupin, the lead ARL contact for the Rice partnership.

"We want to deliver the capability of quickly deploying secure, robust Army communications networks wherever and whenever they're needed," Maupin says in the release. "The technology needed for that will benefit the world by transforming the economics of rural broadband, reducing response times to natural disasters, opening new opportunities for online education and more."

Research out of Baylor College of Medicine advancing information known about vision

Photo via bcm.edu

For humans, seeing is pretty simple — just open your eyes. But the process our eyes go through extremely complex, and scientists have had a hard time recreating the process — until now.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the University of Tübingen in Germany have developed a novel computational approach that accelerates the brain's ability to identify optimal stimuli. The complete study by the scientists was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"We want to understand how vision works," says senior author Dr. Andreas Tolias, professor and Brown Foundation Endowed Chair of Neuroscience at Baylor. "We approached this study by developing an artificial neural network that predicts the neural activity produced when an animal looks at images. If we can build such an avatar of the visual system, we can perform essentially unlimited experiments on it. Then we can go back and test in real brains with a method we named 'inception loops."

To track neurons and how they work, the researchers tracked brain activity scanning thousands of images.

"Experimenting with these networks revealed some aspects of vision we didn't expect," says Tolias, founder and director of the Center for Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence at Baylor, in a release. "For instance, we found that the optimal stimulus for some neurons in the early stages of processing in the neocortex were checkerboards, or sharp corners as opposed to simple edges which is what we would have expected according to the current dogma in the field."

The research is ongoing and will only continue to help dissect how the brain sees and interprets visual elements.

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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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