4 Houston health startups to look out for

Health tech

It might come as no surprise that Houston, home to the largest medical center in the world, has many impressive health startups. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's growing life sciences industry has been a topic of discussion of late — and it's pretty obvious why.

In March, Houston was named the No. 2 top city for an emerging life sciences market, according to CBRE data. Houston was also named the No. 2 city for STEM jobs, per a report from American Enterprise Institute's Housing Center, which cited the city's growing life science industry as a factor. Even Amazon, which recently opened a Tech Hub in Houston, credited the city's life sciences as a reason for Houston's selection.

In fact, according to a report from the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston has over a fifth of the nation's clinical trials last year. With health care innovation abound in town, here are four startups to keep an eye on.

Integrated Bionics

Stephane Smith wants his company, Integrated Bionics, and its sports tech sensor to be a big win for Houston. Courtesy of Integrated Bionics

It may have taken a couple attempts, but Stephane Smith has created a booming sports wearable business that ships products across the United States and the world. Integrate Bionics produces the Titan Sensor — a wearable device that syncs GPS with video and provides athletic metrics at an attainable price. Most of the company's customers are soccer teams primarily in the collegiate space — with some professional and even youth teams. Smith says the company has a firm footing within soccer because that's where this technology really started.

With fresh funds from Houston-based Work America Capital, Integrated Bionics is on a path to scale and grow its product's capabilities.

"We're going to continue relentless innovation — doing things that no one is expecting and helping coaches with things not even on the radar," Smith tells InnovationMap. "We'll going to be rolling out new capabilities and features that have traditionally been relegated to high-end systems or that haven't even existed before."

Read more about Integrated Bionics here.

InformAI

InformAI can use its data technology to help doctors with preventative care and diagnoses. Courtesy of InformAI

Health care is one of the industries where data management might get a "needs improvement" on its report card. Hospitals everywhere have tons of data, and they aren't using it to their full potential. Houston-based InformAI is looking to change this within the Texas Medical Center.

Jim Havelka, founder and CEO, started the company in 2017, and created a new technology that allows hospitals and medical establishments better access to its own data – which translates into more effective diagnoses and preventative care. Havelka saw a need within the medical industry for this type of service.

"There were several things missing," says Havelka. "One was access to very large data sets, because it wasn't really until the last five or 10 years that digitalization of data, especially in the healthcare vertical became more widespread and available in a format that's usable. The second convergence was the technology, the ability to process very large data sets."

Read more about InformAI here.

Mental Health Match

Ryan Schwartz realized online dating was easier than finding a therapist. He created a tool to change that. Courtesy of Mental Health Match

If only finding a therapist was as easy as finding a date in a world where dating apps are a dime a dozen. Ryan Schwartz realized as he sat in a coffee shop with a friend making a connection online, it should be that easy.

"In two minutes she could have a profile matching her with a partner potentially for the rest of her life and I was sitting there for hours and hours trying to find a therapist," he recalls. "I thought it should be easier to find a therapist than a life partner. That's what sent me on my journey."

That journey reached a watershed last month when Schwartz launched Mental Health Match, a website designed to pair patients with their ideal therapist. The idea gained traction as Schwartz described it to people he met and found that many said they had experienced similar difficulties in finding the right practitioner for their needs.

Read more about Mental Health Match here.

Lazarus 3D

Lazarus 3D is using 3D printing to help advance surgeons' skills. Photo via laz3d.com

It's 2019 and surgeons are still using the same training tools they have used for decades: produce.

Two Baylor College of Medicine-educated doctors thought that sewing up grapes and slicing bananas was a bit antiquated. Drs. Jacques Zaneveld and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld founded Lazarus3D to build a better training model — and layer by layer, they created models of abs and ribs and even hearts with a 3D printer.

"We adapted pre-existing 3D printing technology in a novel proprietary way that allows us to, overnight, build soft, silicone or hydrogel models of human anatomy," says Jacques, who serves as CEO. "They can be treated just like real tissue."

Read more about Lazarus 3D here.

TMCx is introducing a new opportunity for early stage health tech ideas. Courtesy of TMCx

TMC Innovation Institute introduces new early stage programming opportunities for health care workers

Alpha ideas

While the Texas Medical Center's accelerator, TMCx, accepts two cohorts of health care startups a year at various stages of development, the program isn't optimized for early stage ideas for companies.

Yet for years, the TMC Innovation Institute team has fielded questions from budding entrepreneurs over cold emails — and even LinkedIn.

TMC will launch a new program for these early stage ideas called TMCalpha. Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, announced the program at TMCx's Demo Day on Thursday, June 6.

"Alpha is the first letter in the Greek alphabet. It represents the beginning — the first step in your journey," Black says.

Through monthly events, TMC-affiliated entrepreneurs can meet with the TMCx team, learn startup best practices, pitch to professionals, and receive one-on-one advice.

"It's our mission to support those members in the TMC — those employees, those physicians, those affiliates — that are knee-deep in the problems and have ideas for solutions," he adds.

The details of the program have yet to be revealed, and Black suggested interested parties subscribe to their newsletter.

"Too many good ideas go undeveloped because people don't have a place to turn or know who to talk to," Black says. "Now they do."

Before and after the announcement, 19 different startups pitched to the crowd at the TMC Innovation Institute, representing the end of the accelerator program. The 2019 Digital Health cohort represented the eighth — and most international — cohort within the program.

Three companies within the cohort have announced completed raises totaling over $10 million. However, according to the pitches, that figure is likely even higher.

Houston-based Galen Data is growing its clientbase and just formed two new partnerships with medical device companies. Photo via galendata.com

Houston health care data company grows with new medical device partnerships

Digitizing health

Educated as an engineer, Chris DuPont has stepped outside his professional comfort zone to generate funding for his Houston-based startup, Galen Data Inc. DuPont's pool of technical contacts in Houston is "wide and deep," he says, but his pool of financial contacts had been shallow.

Overcoming obstacles in Houston's business waters, DuPont has raised two rounds of angel funding — he declines to say how much — that have enabled Galen Data to develop and market its cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet, including pacemakers and glucose monitors. DuPont is the startup's co-founder and CEO. Galen Data's platform meets compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

Galen Data's patent-pending technology lets medical device manufacturers tailor the cloud-based software to their unique needs. DuPont says his company's software is geared toward medical devices that are outside, not inside, hospitals and other healthcare facilities. He declines to divulge how many customers the startup has.

Among the startup's customers is San Clemente, California-based Fresca Medical Inc., developer of a device designed to treat sleep apnea.

DuPont says his company's software allows Fresca to perform such tasks as proactively diagnosing problems with the battery in a sleep apnea device or collecting patient data to back up insurance claims. The software even can monitor trends among various medical devices, he says. Galen Data also is helping Fresca develop its mobile app for patients.

Another customer is Friendswood-based Spark Biomedical Inc., developer of a smartphone-connected device, called a neurostimulator, that eases the symptoms of withdrawal from highly addictive opioids.

Hatched within Houston-based Tietronix Software Inc., DuPont's previous employer, Galen Data launched in 2016 but didn't roll out its first product until 2018.

Galen Data's emergence comes as the market for internet-connected mobile health apps keeps growing. One forecast envisions the global space for mobile health exceeding $94 billion by 2023.

"We want to be at the forefront of that technology curve," DuPont says. "We might be six months early, we might be a year early, but it's starting to happen."

Galen Data vies for customers in a largely untapped market, since the majority of medical devices still aren't connected to the internet, according to DuPont. As a whole, medical device makers have been reluctant to delve into connectivity, given the compliance headaches, DuPont says. That's where Galen Data steps in. It's the startup's job, he says, to ensure its tech platform adheres to myriad compliance regulations.

DuPont says a medical device manufacturer easily could spend $250,000 to $500,000 to create its own compliant, connected tech platform similar to Galen Data's offering — and that doesn't include ongoing operational expenses. Galen Data's platform delivers the same benefits at a fraction of that cost, he says.

The startup strives to accomplish its mission with minimal staffing. Between full-timers (including the three co-founders) and contractors, Galen Data employs fewer than 10 people, DuPont says. As needed, Galen Data taps the software development talent at Tietronix, which owns a minority stake in the startup, according to DuPont.

"I'm very, very capital-efficient with our cash," he says. "I don't like layoffs. We'll never have planned layoffs."

If Galen Data continues to achieve its financial goals (it's not profitable yet), DuPont says, the company's workforce could total 20 to 30 within three years. He foresees opening satellite offices in Austin (a tech hub) and Boston (a life sciences hub) at some point.

As for additional products, DuPont wants to eventually build on Galen Data's existing platform by paving the way for data to be securely transferred from medical devices to electronic medical records.

Anchored in Houston, Galen Data hopes to be a player in what DuPont calls "the next biotech corridor of the United States," encompassing not just Houston but Galveston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio.

For Galen Data to thrive in that environment, though, it must conquer what DuPont classifies as his biggest hurdle: raising money from investors in a region rooted in the oil and gas industry. In the first quarter of 2019, Houston startups collected less than 6 percent of the venture capital reported throughout Texas — far below what startups in Austin and Dallas reaped during the same period.

Ramping up investment in Galen Data will require educating local investors about the promising potential of the medical device sector, DuPont says. Meanwhile, he's begun hunting for funding outside Texas.

"It's challenging for a startup to raise money in Houston," says DuPont, who praises local entrepreneurs for their support of Galen Data. "We've done it, but it's been hard."

"If Galen is super successful, hopefully we can invest in other early stage companies," DuPont adds. "That's part of the vision."

Galen Concept Video www.youtube.com

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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.

Get a glimpse at the schedule and speakers for global healthtech event

Itinerary Time

HealthTech Beyond Borders is coming up August 10-13, 2021, where American healthtech companies can find their perfect match with Chilean collaborators. But what exactly can you expect from the free, virtual event?

Besides answering the question "why Chile?," the seminars will touch on everything from software solutions and medical facility management to healthcare products and services, and even venture capital opportunities.

A curated group of successful Chilean and U.S. healthtech companies are participating, including those that specialize in artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, medical robotics, gene therapies, nanomedicine, neurotechnology, eye care tech, telehealth, imaging diagnostics, wellness and fitness, mental health, and more.

The first day includes such panelists as Matias Gutierrez, CEO of Genosur LLC, and Alberto Rodríguez Navarro from Levita Magnetics.

A discussion on the current healthcare innovation ecosystem in Chile and the region's strengths, as well as developments for key sub-sectors are also on tap.

Day two kicks off with everything you'd want to know about venture capital, and why the U.S. has been the largest for Chilean startups.

Find answers to questions like what do early stage companies need to consider and what steps do they need to take to best prepare themselves to receive funding, as well as what are the important tools for companies to reach VC on each territory?

Day three examines the question "Why the U.S.?" What have Houston, Chicago, and Philadelphia done to become key healthcare hubs in the world, and what role do international partners play in these efforts? Representatives from each city are participating.

Likewise, why do international healthcare companies prioritize your respective markets, and how do these cities support expansion? Learn how the global U.S. private healthcare sector can reach Latin America, and how ProChile — the event's sponsor — can help make these connections.

Registration is now open, so get your free tickets here.

Houston cancer-fighting institution names 10 innovative fellows

curing cancer

A Houston institution has identified 10 researchers moving the needle on curing cancer.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center named 10 "early career" faculty members to its 2021 class of Andrew Sabin Family Fellows. The fellowship was established by philanthropist Andrew Sabin through a $30 million endowment in 2015 and "encourages creativity, innovation and impactful cancer research at MD Anderson in the areas of basic science, clinical, physician-scientist and population and quantitative science," according to a news release.

Sabin has served as a member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors since 2005.

"Researchers at MD Anderson are unmatched in their ability to develop bold tactics aimed at tackling cancer," he says in the release. "My hope is that through our support, we can inspire and assist these brilliant minds in their dedicated work to end cancer."

The program will dole out $100,000 to each fellow over two years. Since its inception, the program has selected and supported 52 fellows specializing in cancer research from basic science to translational research to survivorship.

"Our early career researchers are a pivotal part of the innovative discoveries that fuel our mission to end cancer," says President Peter WT Pisters, in the release. "We are extremely grateful for the generosity of the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation in allowing our institution to recruit and retain the highest caliber of young researchers through this fellowship program. Together, we will continue Making Cancer History."

The 2021 class of Sabin Family Fellows includes:

Basic/Translational Scientists

Clinical Researchers

Physician-Scientists

Population/Quantitative Scientists