covid heroes

Houston university announces first recipients of coronavirus research funding

Four COVID-19-focused research projects have been selected by Rice University to receive funding. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University has named several Houston researchers as recipients of funding as a part of a new initiative to support projects that are innovating solutions and services amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The university's COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee — led by engineering professor and special adviser to the provost, Marcia O'Malley — selected a few projects led by Rice faculty members across industries from biomedicine to humanities that will receive the first round of funds. However, the application window is ongoing, according to a press release, and additional awards are to be expected.

Here were the first projects and researchers to be selected by the committee.

A low-cost diagnostic tool

Rice researchers Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Kathryn Kundrod of Rice University along with Kathleen Schmeler of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have identified a way to create a COVID-19 diagnostic device that costs less than $5,000 and less than $2 per test. It would also take fewer than 30 minutes to diagnose.

The researchers are also working with USAID and industry partners on a plan to scale the test to five countries in Africa. In the future, the device would enable broader SARS-CoV-2 testing locally and in low- and middle-income countries.

Richards-Kortum is a professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and director of Rice 360˚. Kundrod is a graduate student in bioengineering. Schmeler is a professor in the department of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson.

A protective rubber harness to be worn over a face mask 

Jacob Robinson and Caleb Kemere, associate professors at Rice, along with Sahil Kuldip of MD Anderson, have discovered a low-cost, easy-to-manufacture rubber harness to be worn over surgical or cloth masks in order seal the masks. The seal would better prevent small airborne particles from getting around the masks.

Robinson is in Rice's electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering departments, while Kemere specializes in electrical and computer engineering. Kuldip is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at MD Anderson.

Wastewater monitoring for coronavirus contamination 

Rice researchers Lauren Stadler, Katherine Ensor and Loren Hopkins are working with the Houston Health Department and Houston Water on a plan to collect wastewater samples from local treatment plants to monitor for the presence of COVID-19.

With most people asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms of COVID-19, the researchers are looking into the virus's presence in wastewater in order to track community infection.

Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Ensor, the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics, are working with Hopkins, who is a professor in practice of statistics and chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department.

The identification of safe and healthy voting procedures 

Five Rice researchers — Robert Stein, Philip Kortum, Claudia Ziegler Acemyan, Daniel Wallach and Elizabeth Vann — are looking into steps Harris County can take to ensure that in-person voting is safe and keeps participants healthy. Through surveys with citizens, the team will help election officials survey both voters and poll workers on their voting preferences and concerns.

The research team spans campus departments: Stein is the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science, Kortum is an associate professor of psychological sciences, Acemyan is an adjunct assistant professor of psychological sciences, Wallach is a professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering, and Vann is the director of programs and partnerships at the Center for Civic Leadership

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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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