Eavesdropping online

Overheard: Houston innovators discuss ESG, energy transition, cleantech and more at SXSW

The city's top power players within Houston's energy innovation ecosystem joined virtual SXSW to weigh in on hot topics — from ESG to the future of the industry's workforce. Photos courtesy

The first day of SXSW 2021 — a virtual edition of the Austin-based conference — is on the books, and Houston innovators were no strangers to attendees' screens thanks to Houston House put on by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Day one of the two days of programming focused on all things energy — power storage, corporate venture, ESG, the future of the workforce, and so much more — with interviews hosted by me, Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap. Missed out on the fun? Catch up with a few overheard moments from Houston House or stream the full interviews below.

“Successful entrepreneurs are critical for re-investing in the community, and we’re trying to nurture that base now.” — Kirk Coburn, investment director at Shell Ventures

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

What are the roles of energy corporations when it comes to innovation development? And what else does a successful innovation ecosystem need? At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, panelists Kirk Coburn, investment director of Shell Ventures, and Bill Collins, founder and CEO of LO3 Energy, discuss the role of corporate innovation and venture support and the future of energy security. Click here to watch the full interview.

“If we’re going to improve performance in the energy industry, we are going to have to work better together and collaborate together.” — Al Carnrite, president and CEO of Carnrite Group

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Environmental, social, and governance, aka ESG, has the power to disrupt the energy transition and has already made a huge impact on energy company's short- and long-term goals. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO, of Data Gumbo, and Al Carnrite, president and CEO of Carnrite Group discuss the emergence of ESG and how it's affecting the global energy transition. Click here to watch the full interview.

“While Houston remains the energy capital of the world, Houston is much, much more than oil and gas. Innovators in Houston are leading the charge towards creating a lower carbon future.” — Mayor Sylvester Turner

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

How's business in Houston? At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Mayor Sylvester Turner gives an update on how the innovation ecosystem has developed over his tenure. Click here to watch the full interview.

"Houston is a renewable energy capital that no one knows about — in addition to being the energy capital.” — Emily Reichert, CEO at Greentown Labs

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

In order to maintain its role as the energy capital of the world, Houston needs to advance its role in clean energy innovation. Greentown Labs, which is opening its new Houston facility in just a matter of months, will help move that needle locally. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, shares how Greentown Houston will act as a convener and a place to spark cleantech innovation. Click here to watch the full interview.

“We think material science is the new tech boom. And Houston is the place to be for it.” — Mike Francis, CEO and co-founder of NanoTech

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston's no stranger to engineering and physical science. Over the past several decades, the city has accumulated major hard tech businesses and talent within oil and gas. Now, it's time to lean on that infrastructure to allow for a hard tech and material science revolution. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Dale Winger, managing director at Halliburton Labs, and Mike Francis, CEO and co-founder of Nanotech, discuss how materials science plays a major role in advancing the energy transition. Click here to watch the full interview.

“This isn’t your daddy’s oil patch. This is an opportunity where we can really leverage the people we have in the city to drive us forward.” — Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of Ally

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

What does the future of the energy workforce look like? For one, it looks way different from decades past. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY, weighs in on how diversity — racial, gendered, and even generational — is extremely key moving the industry forward. Click here to watch the full interview.

“We are seeing now this inflection point where there is this next build out of utility. Texas in particular is a great proving ground.” — Doug Moorehead, managing partner and CTO of Broad Reach Power

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

On the heels of the state's worst winter storm power outage, the energy and power industries are rethinking weatherization and power storage for the future. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Doug Moorehead, managing partner and CTO of Broad Reach Power, discusses the future of energy storage and how profoundly important it is toward preventing another winter storm power outage like Texas experienced in February. Click here to watch the full interview.

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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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