This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Brooks Powell of Cheers Health, Emily Cisek of The Postage, and Andrew Bruce of Data Gumbo. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from blockchain technology to consumer-facing innovations — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Brooks Powell, founder and CEO of Cheers Health

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

When bars and restaurants shut down due to the pandemic last year, Brooks Powell — founder of Cheers Health, an after-alcohol hangover aid — worried how it would affect his business. He tells InnovationMap that he thought without seeing drinking buddies, people wouldn't consume as much alcohol and therefore won't need his product. But that's not what happened.

"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, adding that Cheers responded to the market need.

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7 million in profit — its first profitable year since launch. Click here to read more.

Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage

Emily Cisek joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss tech optimizing after-life planning, B-to-C startup challenges, and a national expansion. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek co-founded The Postage after seeing the ways a consumer-focused tech platform could help families navigate legacy and after-death planning. Since launching the platform, she's learned even more about what users want — and she's responded to that with new tools.

"We launched the online will maker — it wasn't in my roadmap for another six months or so — because every single person that was coming in was looking at something else on our platform, but then going to the will part and asking, 'Hey is this something I can create here?'" Cisek says.

Recognizing that this was a good opportunity to generate new users, Cisek quickly added on the feature for a flat fee. She shares more about the company and her entrepreneurial journey on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to read more and to stream the episode.

Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, founded and led by Andrew Bruce, has announced its latest funding. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

After raising more than $3 million in addition funds, Data Gumbo CEO Andrew Bruce has eyes on an expansion into the Middle East.

"The successful close of our series B is continued proof of the efficacy and booming interest in our ability to capture critical cost savings, deliver trust and provide transparency across commercial relationships," says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "This infusion of capital will support our expansion efforts as we bring more international users to our network."

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release. Click here to read more.

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup expands hangover product line with new beverage launch

cheers to health

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.

On his failed investor attempt on Shark Tank, Brooks Powell couldn't secure a shark investment for $400,000. Now, he just closed on $2.1 million for his startup. Courtesy of Cheers

Houston hangover pill startup seen on Shark Tank rebrands following multimillion-dollar raise

Three cheers for cheers

When Brooks Powell's Houston-based startup got passed over by the investors on Shark Tank last year, he didn't let it deter him. Instead, the Houston entrepreneur buckled down and started seeking investments off the screen.

It paid off, and Cheers (née Thrive+) recently closed a $2.1 million seed round. The round was lead by NextView Ventures, which has the likes of TaskRabbit, threadUP, and Letgo among its portfolio.

With the new investment, Brooks says the company is rebranding from Thrive, its original moniker, to Cheers.

"Thrive+ doesn't really say anything about what we did or who we are about," Powell says. "We knew we needed something fitting for the alcohol industry but at the same time has the connotation of fun, responsibility, and health."

The process has been daunting, but worth it, Powell says, citing companies like Ring, which changed its company name from Doorbot.

"It would be hard to imagine Amazon buying a company named Doorbot," Powell says.

It's worth noting that Doorbot rebranded also following a similar rejection on Shark Tank.

Once Cheers had its new name, Powell began the process of the transition — relabeling bottles, redoing marketing materials, etc. There's still a long road ahead for the rebranding, but Powell says he wasn't going to drag his feet, since the change would just become more expensive and more challenging. Ring, for instance, had to pay $1 million for its new domain name.

"We wanted to become Cheers as soon as possible, because it would only become harder as time went on," he says.

From student to CEO
Cheers' formula isn't new. The key ingredient, Dihydromyricetin, a natural extract — like caffeine to coffee, which made the FDA process smooth sailing. DHM started being identified as an anti-alcohol treatment in 2012 following experiments on the effects on rats.

Around that time, Powell was a sophomore at Princeton University, and he came across the science surrounding DHM and knew if he could harness the natural extract for commercial use, it'd change the game of hangover health.

"I started working with some of my professors and asking them if it was safe and would it be effective," Powell says.

At the time, there was very little amount of DHM in the United States, so the company became the first to import the ingredient on a large scale.

Powell graduated from Princeton in 2017 and moved his company to its workspace in The Cannon.

Serving up growth
Cheers has seen a tremendous amount of growth over the past year. The company's revenue increased 20 times year over year. A key determiner of success for the company, Powell says, has been strategic marketing and a working product.

"Primarily products such as this, historically, have never worked," he says. "And they've always been marketing toward binge drinkers and partiers."

Another strategy Powell has is giving the company a presence nationwide by having advisers and investors from both coasts.

"What we have tried to do is have our cake and eat it too. We set roots in Houston, but we have our hands in other markets."

In addition to rebranding, Cheers plans to continue its growth, as well as research and development of the product.

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10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for April

WHERE TO BE

From pitching competitions to expert speaker summits, April is filled with opportunities for Houston innovators.

Here's a roundup of events you won't want to miss out on so mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post may be updated to add more events.

April 4 — Mission Control: Texas’ Leadership in Space, Technology, and Innovation 

Since its inception, the space industry has expanded across Texas and grown beyond scientific exploration into a tableau on which the terrestrial set have placed bets related to tourism, mining, communications, healthcare, food science, national security, technical innovations across all industries, and even human habitation beyond earth. The Texas Lyceum’s 2024 Public Conference (PubCon) will explore these opportunities and the journey to realize the promise of space and beyond for Texas and the nation.

Throughout the event, an expected 300 industry leaders and Texas legislators and staffers will participate in thought provoking discussions to inform our stakeholders and state leaders on the trajectory, challenges and opportunities in the Space Economy.

This event starts Thursday, April 4, from 2:30 to 9:30 pm at the Thompson Hotel. Click here to register.

April 4-6 — 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition

Hosted and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which is Rice University's internationally-recognized initiative devoted to the support of entrepreneurship, and Rice Business, the Rice Business Plan Competition offers an educational program mirroring real-world experience through this multi-day event for student startups from across the world.

In total, more than $1 million in investment and cash prizes are expected to be awarded at the 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition. Every single startup will walk away with at least $950 in cash prizes, no matter where they place in the competition.

The Elevator Pitch event is open to the public and on Thursday, April 4, from 6 to 9 pm at Jones Graduate School of Business. Click here to register.

April 6 — 12th Annual Houston Global Health Collaborative Conference

This meeting is an annual gathering of interdisciplinary professionals and students with a passion for global health innovation and advancement. This year's Conference Theme is Global Health Diplomacy: Shaping Policies for Health Impact and will feature subthemes of vaccine diplomacy, global surgery, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, and the global nutrition crisis. Clinicians, researchers, healthcare workers, policymakers, and students across any field who are interested in global health are especially encouraged to attend.

This event is Saturday, April 6, from 7:45 am to 7 pm at the University of Houston College of Medicine. Click here to register.

April 10 — Bayou City Bio Pulse

Check out a showcase of life sciences in The Woodlands. This event will feature a vendor exhibition, presentations from business, academic and community development leaders, and a panel discussion on The Woodlands’ life sciences ecosystem. Spanning across five sites totaling over 80 acres, The Woodlands Innovation District is positioned to meet the needs of companies focused on in-house manufacturing (from biopharma to industrial biology), as well as contract development manufacturing organizations (CDMOs).

This event is Wednesday, April 10, from 8 am to 12 pm at the Woodlands Towers. Click here to register.

April 18 — Energy Underground: All Things Hydrogen

The Energy Underground is a group of professionals in the Greater Houston area that are accelerating the Energy Transition. Come together to learn and support each other's work in advancing the Energy Transition: make industry contacts, secure financing, share deals, recommend talent looking to enter the energy workforce, and anything else that leads to bigger, better energy companies.

This event is Thursday, April 18, from 12 to 1:30 pm at the Cannon West Houston. Click here to register.

April 19 — Build Day x Tour: Houston Hackathon

A partnership between ACT House, a human analytics leader, and Tech Equity Collective, a Google Initiative driving black innovation in tech formed an exciting new accelerator. Participants will build their own startup team, collaborate on ideas, and sprint on real work. The first place winning team will receive $10,000, the second place team will recieve $5,000 and the third place team will get $2,500.

This event is Friday, April 19, at 4 pm until April 20 at 4 pm. Click here to register.

April 21 — The Energy Corridor District's Earth Day Celebration

Come out for a day of fun and environmental awareness. Get hands-on and contribute to a communal art piece that symbolizes a collective commitment to Mother Earth. Pick up a brush or a marker and add your creativity to the canvas.

Take a moment to learn how the world's top energy companies are contributing to a more sustainable future. Get inspired and pick up some tips for your own eco-journey

This event is Sunday, April 21, from 1 to 4 pm at Terry Hershey Park. Click here to register.

April 22 — EO4Energy Workshop

The Geological Remote Sensing Group (GRSG) Americas, in partnership with the University of Houston, invites you to a workshop focusing on the role of Earth Observation (EO) and remote sensing in the Energy Industry.

As the industry moves towards sustainability, driven by Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations, the significance of EO and remote sensing continues to grow. This workshop will encompass insightful case studies, introduce emerging technologies, and present advanced methodologies. Participants will engage with a diverse group of professionals from the energy, space, academic, and government sectors.

This event begins Monday, April 22, at 8 am at Hilton University of Houston. Click here to register.

April 25 — 2024 PIDX International US Spring Conference

In this industry event, explore the intersection of AI and Digital Standards. All experienced speakers across industries are invited to contribute articles, share use cases and theories, and connect with attendees from the Energy Industry.

The accumulated knowledge shared at the event will guide the forthcoming phase of PIDX Standards Development tailored for the Energy Industry.

This event begins Thursday, April 25, at 8 am at 501 Westlake Park. Click here to register.

April 26 — StartupLaunch USA: Ignite Your Entrepreneurial Journey

This is an immersive online learning experience tailored for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to kickstart their startup ventures in the United States. This event provides participants with the essential knowledge, skills, and resources needed to navigate the complexities of launching and scaling a successful business.

Through a series of interactive workshops, expert-led seminars, and practical case studies. Participants will learn how to develop innovative business ideas, validate market opportunities, and create viable business models that resonate with target audiences.

This event is Friday, April 26, from 1 to 6 pm at Museum of Natural Science. Click here to register.

April 27 — World Youth Foundation: STEAM Innovation Incubator

WYF's STEAM Innovation Industry Pathways, or SIIP, is a youth out-of-school-time monthly program designed to bridge the gap between academic learning, industry, and digital skilling.

Open to youth ages 6 to 24, SIIP is not your typical program—it's a gateway to a world of metaskilling, offering a dynamic range of skills from design thinking, strategic project management, soft skills development, digital skills development, and industry application.

This event is Saturday, April 27, from 10 am to 1:30 pm at Sunnyside Health and Multi-Service Center. Click here to register.


Report: Here's how Houston ranks in terms of its gender pay gap

by the numbers

It's 2024 and women are still making less money than men, thus keeping the unfortunate reality of the wage gap alive. But at least in Houston, the wage gap isn't as bad as other Texas cities, according to a new earnings study by Chamber of Commerce.

Houston ranked No. 142 on the list, which examined earnings for full-time workers in 170 of the most populous cities in the United States.

The study found that, in 2024, men in Houston are currently making $4,474 more than women — a figure that's significantly lower than the national wage gap, which is a little over $11,000.

The U.S. city with the worst gender pay gap is none other than Frisco, a Dallas suburb. Men in Frisco are currently making a staggering $52,216 more than women, which is more than $12,000 more than the gap in 2023.

Also in North Texas, McKinney remained in the No. 5 spot for the second consecutive year. McKinney men make $24,568 more than women, which is a $4,400 decrease year-over-year. Plano's gender wage gap has worsened since 2023: The Dallas suburb is now listed among the top 10 worst pay gaps in the U.S., climbing to No. 6. The study says the Plano's wage gap is now $23,415, or nearly $2,300 more than last year.

Statewide gender pay gap

Chamber of Commerce found that Texas' gender pay gap has increased since last year; The 2023 study found that women made nearly $11,000 less than men, and that discrepancy has widened in 2024 to nearly $12,000.

However, Texas' ranking has improved 10 spots from No. 29 last year to No. 19 this year.

For added context, New Hampshire has the No. 1 worst pay gap in the nation, with men making over $18,000 more than women.

Other Texas cities that earned spots in the report are:

  • No. 20 – Amarillo
  • No. 22 – Laredo
  • No. 24 – Austin
  • No. 30 – Corpus Christi
  • No. 31 – Pasadena
  • No. 33 – Irving
  • No. 52 – Lubbock
  • No. 59 – El Paso
  • No. 65 – Grand Prairie
  • No. 81 – Fort Worth
  • No. 118 – Dallas
  • No. 121 – San Antonio
  • No. 125 – Arlington
  • No. 167 – Brownsville
  • No. 168 – Garland

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

Amperon CEO Sean Kelly joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his company's growth and expansion plans. Photo via LinkedIn

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology." Continue reading.

Amanda Burkhardt, CEO of Phiogen

Spun out of Baylor College of Medicine, Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to pitch at SXSW earlier this month. Photo via LinkedIn

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains. Continue reading.

Mielad Ziaee, 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar

Mielad Ziaee, a 20-year-old student at the University of Houston, was tapped for a unique National Institutes of Health program. Photo via UH.edu

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.” Continue reading.