treating addiction

Houston med-tech companies partner on wearable device for opioid withdrawal

A new medical device created in Houston is revolutionizing opioid withdrawal treatment. Photo via sparkbiomedical.com

Houston-based Spark Biomedical has created a revolutionary wearable device that provides unprecedented levels of opioid withdrawal relief.

The device known as the Sparrow Therapy System is worn over the ear for five to seven days and sends mild electrical signals to trigger cranial nerves that sit near the skin's surface.

Once activated, the nerves release endorphins that the body has stopped producing on its own during opioid use. The endorphins satisfy the opioid receptors and in turn reduce or prevent the intense symptoms that often come along with opioid withdrawal. According to Spark BioMed CEO Daniel Powell, the technology also helps patients better control their "flight or fight mechanisms," allowing them to make clearer, more logical decisions as they come off of the drug.

"If you ask 100 people who've gone through opioid withdrawal, I would bet 99 of them will tell you they thought they were going to die," Powell says. "Giving them the ability to manage that is huge. It's the first step towards addiction recovery. It's not solving the addiction, but it is an absolute barrier to move forward."

The product was approved by the FDA in January of 2020, after clinical trials showed that the Sparrow could meaningfully reduce withdrawal symptoms in the first hour of use. According to Powell, roughly a third of patients in the trial were completely out of withdrawal and patients' Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scales scores reduced by more than 53 percent across the board.

Spark, which won Venture Houston's inaugural pitch competition earlier this year, partnered with Houston-based Velentium (which also happened to grow 93 percent last year after partnering with General Motors on Project V) to bring the product from concept to commercial physician prescribed product. "We needed a more sophisticated design house to help us finish it," Powell says.

The up-and-comers were connected through one of Spark's investors. Powell, in a previous career, had also sold a neurostimulator that Velentium CTO Randy Armstrong had invented.

"You're seeing more and more Houston centric medical innovation than we've ever seen before," says Velentium CEO Dan Purvis. "And the cool thing about that is there ends up being a camaraderie amongst entrepreneurs, medical researchers and scientists."

And though the release of Sparrow marks a huge milestone, neither Spark of Velentium are stopping there. Moving forward, Spark aims to conduct a massive study on how a similar technology, dubbed the Roo, can aid infants born to opioid-dependent mothers wean from the drug.

The company also aims to create a next generation Sparrow with the help of Velentium, and will look at long-term uses of the product. Powell says that Spark will look to determine if the product can prevent relapses and help to cure addiction when worn daily or regularly.

"Our big, crazy, ambitious goal is can we actually help people recover from addiction," Powell says. "We're really not addressing psychology, that's going to be in cognitive behavioral therapy. But if we can remove the neurological results of drug use, we think we can make at least start to stack the deck in the favor of the patient versus having the deck stacked completely against them all the time."

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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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