Big checks

Rice University startup competition awards record $2.9 million in prizes

The winner of the Rice Business Plan Competition walked away with over $700,000 in prizes. Courtesy of Rice University

On Saturday, over 20 organizations were prepared to write checks to entrepreneurs competing in the Rice Business Plan Competition, but the largest and richest student business plan competition doled out almost double what it initially intended to award.

Earlier this year, Rice University announced the 42 teams that would be competing for $1.5 million in prizes, but ended up giving out a record $2.9 million. While a few organizations announced they had trouble picking a single company and named two recipients, Houston-based GOOSE Society surprised everyone with almost $1 million in unexpected prizes.

"It shows the diversity in expertise and interest of our investors, and how much the quality of the deals grown at RBPC," says Samantha Lewis, director at GOOSE.

GOOSE, which is a network of investors, originally intended to provide the grand prize — a $350,000 check to the company with the top score from the judges. The 2019 grand prize winner was Vita Inclinata Technologies, a company from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law that created a technology to advance helicopter safety. On top of that, GOOSE investors tacked on five more prizes.

  • $300,000 to Resonado, a more efficient speaker design company, from the University of Notre Dame
  • $200,000 to Rhaeos, a medical device company that has a wearable sensor for neurosurgical patients, from the Northwestern University
  • $200,000 to spotLESS Materials, a company that created a repellant coating material, from Penn State University
  • $125,000 to CataLight, a more sustainable water filtration system company, from the University of Waterloo
  • $100,000 to BrewBike, a campus bike delivery concept, from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago

GOOSE has surprised the crowd before at past RBPC awards banquets, Lewis says, but that's usually been one or two extra prizes. This is the first year the organization has committed this much — and there's potential for these companies to receive even more.

The group now begins is true due diligence process, Lewis says, and depending on what they find, they could invest more. The 2017 winner, Pennsylvania-based Forest Devices Inc., was awarded GOOSE's $300,000 grand prize, but the company eventually received a $2 million investment instead.

Two Houston-based student teams competed in the program, but neither were named even semifinalists. Curenav from University of Houston didn't receive any prize money, but Rice's LilySpec received the $25,000 Pearland Economic Development Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize as well as the $1,000 Mercury Fund prize and the $1,000 Orrick Awards Banquet Company Showcase Prize.

The 19th annual contest named seven finalists according to the judges' top scores — all receiving over $100,000 in prizes each.

  • First place: Vita Inclinata Technologies (won a total value of nearly $700,000)
  • Second place: Resonado (won more than $300,000 )
  • Third place: spotLESS Materials (won more than $360,000)
  • Fourth place: Rhaeos (won more than $450,000)
  • Fifth place: Zilper Trenchless, which developed a way to install pipes under streets with minimum effect on the surface, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (won more than $435,000)
  • Sixth place: BrewBike (won more than $100,000)
  • Seventh place: CataLight (won more than $140,000)

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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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