ones to watch

Houston organization names 10 most promising life sciences startups

Here's which life science companies — in Houston and beyond — are ones to watch. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Last week, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship gathered over 1,000 life science experts and attendees virtually for thought leadership as well as 40 company presentations.

The three-day 2020 Virtual Texas Life Science Forum was made possible through a partnership with BioHouston and support from Texas Medical Center and Insperity. At the close of the summit, several companies were recognized with awards.

Houston-based Starling Medical won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The digital health device company is revolutionizing severe bladder dysfunction management with artificial intelligence.

Every year at the forum, the Rice Alliance names its 10 most promising companies working on developing innovative solutions in medical devices, digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutics. This year, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, says they had more applications to present than ever before. Additionally, the presenting companies — about half of which are Houston-based — have already raised more than $275 million in funding.

The 2020 most-promising life science companies, which were chosen by investors and presented by the Greater Houston Partnership, were:

Droice Labs

Image via droicelabs.com

New York-based Droice Labs, is an artificial intelligence and big data company matches patients to therapies and delivers personalized medicine at scale while reducing costs.

"Our cutting-edge technology seamlessly integrates into clinical workflows, and we continue to evolve unique and powerful applications for our clients and the patients they serve," reads the company's website.

SFA Therapeutics

Image via sfatherapeutics.com

Based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, SFA Therapeutics is developing oral drugs for treating conditions of chronic inflammation that have the potential to change the practice of medicine. The company has treatments for Psoriasis, Liver Cancer (Hepatitis B, NASH and HCC), Ophthalmic Diseases, Cytokine Release Syndrome- a side effect in CAR-T, Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Leukemias, and other diseases.

Hummingbird Bioscience

Photo via jlabs.jnjinnovation.com

Hummingbird Bioscience, based in Houston's JLABS @ TMC, is tackling challenging targets that play a key role in disease yet have not been effectively drugged. The company has worked on 12 therapies in various stages of development, four of which have the potential to revolutionize their fields.

"At Hummingbird, we believe that modern approaches to systems biology and data science can overcome the challenges of classical methods of therapeutics discovery, and profoundly improve the way we deliver new transformative medicines," reads the company website.

CaseCTRL

Image via casectrl.com

Houston-based CaseCTRL is empowering surgeons with a management platform with software-as-a-service technology that uses AI and logistics to lower operational costs and simplify surgical planning.

"The surgical scheduling process is frustratingly stuck in the past: siloed, paper-based, and too dependent on single schedulers," reads the website. "Surgeons are stressed and overworked. They need a better way to communicate their complex surgical plans, timelines and resource needs."

Perimeter Medical

Image via perimetermed.com

Perimeter Medical, based in Dallas, is driven to transform cancer surgery with advanced, real-time, ultra high-resolution imaging tools including AI to address areas of unmet medical need.

"Perimeter is dedicated to providing solutions that drive better patient care and lower healthcare costs by providing critical information, during clinical procedures," reads the website.

Studio Bahria

Image via studiobahia.org

San Antonio-based Studio Bahia, is developing an accessible model for therapy in addressing mental health crises from the pandemic through virtual reality.

"We are in production of our first two therapies for release in the 4th quarter of 2020. Studio Bahia clients include corporate, retail, and institutional partners who purchase our headsets for $25 in providing mental health therapies and wellness tools to employees, executives, and patients," reads the company's website.

Tvardi Therapeutics

Photo via Getty Images

Tvardi Therapeutics, based in Houston, is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on the development of a new class of breakthrough medicines for diverse cancers and chronic inflammatory and fibrotic diseases.

"Tvardi is focused on the development of orally delivered, small molecule inhibitors of STAT3, a key signaling molecule positioned at the intersection of many disease pathways," reads the website.

Koda Health

Image via kodahealthcare.com

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning.

"You're entitled to protect the healthcare decisions that matter most to you and your family," the company's website promises. "Koda creates Care Plans to ensure that you get the medical care you want."

Immuno Genesis

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Houston-based ImmunoGenesis is a clinical-stage biotechnology company developing therapeutics to catalyze effective immune responses in immunologically "cold" cancers such as prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic.

"Compared to existing immunotherapy drugs, we believe this antibody will both provide more consistent benefit for patients with immune-infiltrated tumors, and, for the first time, will also benefit patients with immune 'cold' cancers," says founder Dr. Michael A. Curran in a press release announcing the company's grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Ictero Medical

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Ictero Medical, based in Houston, is developing the first minimally invasive cryoablation solution to treat patients with gallstone disease. Ictero Medical has created a minimally invasive treatment, called The CholeSafe System, that uses cryoablation to defunctionize the gallbladder without having to remove it.

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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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