Short stories

Startups raise funds, Houston biz contest opens apps, and more innovation news

Texans see need for telemedicine amid the pandemic, Liftoff Houston has launched applications, ChipMonk Bakery is growing, and more of the latest Houston innovation news. Getty Images

From health-conscious cookies reaching fundraising goals to a Houston-wide business competition, the Bayou City's innovation news is pretty diverse.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of startup and tech short stories, there's everything from telemedicine, fundraising, and more.

Houston baking startup raises money after finding its new home

ChipMonk Baking Company, a consumer packaged goods startup focused on healthy dessert options, has met its goal of $150,000. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk

Houston-based ChipMonk Baking Company, which recently found a new home in a new dedicated production facility, has reached its goal on its investment round on NextSeed.

ChipMonk, which was founded last year to create sweets that use sweeteners monk fruit and allulose for health-conscious consumers, will soon operate in a 2,300-square-foot space at 3042 Antoine Dr. The space is strictly for baking, storage, etc. and will not have a storefront.

Co-founders Jose Hernandez and David Downing have seen a spike in demand since the start of the pandemic, which increased the need to upgrade from shared kitchen space.

"The stay-at-home environment has encouraged many people to think more about their health and to start cooking and baking more at home. We've been able to offer a delicious option that fits perfectly in this growing trend," says Downing, who also serves as CEO.

ChipMonk's lease begins next month, and, to fund its growth plans, the company launched a its campaign on NextSeed. In just a couple weeks, the startup met its fundraising goal of $150,000.

Cancer nonprofit moves into new space

The Rose has a new facility to better serve patients. Photos courtesy of The Rose

The Rose, a Houston-based breast cancer nonprofit that provides medical services to 40,000 patients annually, has moved into its new space at 6575 West Loop South, suite 275, in May.

"We know this location will allow us to better serve our community," says Dorothy Gibbons, co-founder and CEO of The Rose, in a news release. "During this time of the pandemic, we've added so many safety precautions and will continue to space appointments to allow social distancing. Most of all we want our patients to feel safe and welcome from the moment they walk through our door."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, data reports have shown a drop in routine health care, like cervical and breast cancer screenings. Gibbons says the drop in these appointments is concerning and those who postpone routine screening or diagnostic testing could be at risk for developing later stage breast cancer.

"Our message to our patients is breast cancer is not going to wait until this pandemic is over; neither should you. With the projected increase in uninsured women, due to so many job losses, The Rose has to be ready to serve. Now more than ever, we depend on our insured patients to help cover the care for uninsured patients," she says.

Houston business competition opens applications

Small businesses in Houston have until August 10 to apply for the annual Liftoff Houston competition. Photo via liftoffhouston.smapply.org

The city of houston's annual business plan competition, Liftoff Houston, has opened applications. The program, which is sponsored by Capital One Bank, is looking for companies and will award winners in three categories: Product, service, and innovation

Each business that wins will receive a $10,000 cash prize. The competition is focused on early stage startups with revenue less than $10,000 and must have only been in business for less than a year. The companies also must be based in Houston.

Applicants can submit their information online to be considered for the contest. The deadline to apply is August 10.

TMCx company closes $1.53 million seed round

Manatee

Manatee has raised funds for its digital therapy platform. Photo via getmanatee.com

Manatee, a health tech startup based in Denver that was a member of this year's TMCx cohort, has announced it closed its seed funding round at $1.53 million. The company, which provides digital solutions to therapy for children, closed the round at the end of June.

Michigan-based Grand Ventures led the raise and invested alongside The American Family Insurance Institute (AmFam), Telosity, SpringTime Ventures, and notable health care entrepreneurs, Danish Munir, Luke Leninger, and Johnathan Weiner, according to information emailed by Manatee representative.

"Manatee was the first solution we found that really understood kids and their unique needs," says Christopher Neuharth, executive director of digital health and experience at Children's Wisconsin. "They got the dynamics between the child, parent, and therapist – and how to influence behavior change."

Accenture study finds COVID-19 has been a gamechanger for telemedicine

Houston medical organizations pivot to telemedicine and remote care amid COVID-19 crisis

An Accenture study found that most Texans are seeking telehealth amid the pandemic. Getty Images

According to a recent study from Accenture, 89 percent of Texas consumers want telehealth options — and the COVID-19 pandemic deserves the credit for the increased interest.

According to a press release from the company, the research found that:

  • One-fourth of Texans surveyed said they first learned about virtual health care following the outbreak of COVID-19.
  • The number of Texans who said they know a little or a lot about virtual health care increased 25 percent following the outbreak.
  • Approximately nine in 10 Texans surveyed after the pandemic began believe that virtual care options should be available to everyone.

The widespread stay-at-home orders exposed Texans to virtual health care and left a positive impression on receiving care remotely. For instance:

  • An estimated 4.5 million state residents began using virtual health care services since the onset of the pandemic.
  • Nearly half (45 percent) of Texans said they trust a virtual health visit as much as or more than an in-person visit—a 15 percent uptick from the pre-pandemic period.
  • Six out of seven remote-care patients (86 percent) who have continued to use virtual care options during the pandemic said their experience after the start of the COVID-19 outbreak was better or the same as before, and three-quarters (76 percent) said their wait time was shorter or the same.

"A lot of Texans got a taste for what it's like to see their physicians and specialists from the safety and comfort of their home," says Mark Olney, a managing director in Accenture's health practice and the study's lead author. "Now patients are eager to get more of that access, convenience and time savings."

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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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