Rice University bioengineers are designing a vascularized, insulin-producing implant for Type 1 diabetes. Photo by Jeff Fitlow courtesy of Rice University

A team of bioengineers at Houston's own Rice University have created an implant that can produce insulin for Type 1 diabetics. The device is being created by using 3D printing and smart biomaterials.

Omid Veiseh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Jordan Miller, associate professor of bioengineering, have been working on the project for three years and have received support from JDRF by way of a grant. Veiseh has a decade of experience developing biomaterials that protect implanted cell therapies from the immune system an Miller has spent more than 15 years specializing in 3D print tissues with vasculature, or networks of blood vessels.

"If we really want to recapitulate what the pancreas normally does, we need vasculature," Veiseh says in a news release. "And that's the purpose of this grant with JDRF. The pancreas naturally has all these blood vessels, and cells are organized in particular ways in the pancreas. Jordan and I want to print in the same orientation that exists in nature."

The challenge with Type 1 diabetes is balancing insulin intake, and studies estimate that less than a third of Type 1 diabetics in the U.S. are able to achieve target blood glucose levels consistently. Veiseh and Miller are working toward demonstrating that their implants can properly regulate blood glucose levels of diabetic mice for at least six months. To do that, they'll need to give their engineered beta cells the ability to respond to rapid changes in blood sugar levels.

"We must get implanted cells in close proximity to the bloodstream so beta cells can sense and respond quickly to changes in blood glucose," Miller says, adding that the insulin-producing cells should be no more than 100 microns from a blood vessel. "We're using a combination of pre-vascularization through advanced 3D bioprinting and host-mediated vascular remodeling to give each implant several shots at host integration."

Another challenge these experts are facing is a potential delay that can happen if the implant is too slow to respond to high or low blood sugar levels.

"Addressing that delay is a huge problem in this field," Veiseh says. "When you give the mouse — and ultimately a human — a glucose challenge that mimics eating a meal, how long does it take that information to reach our cells, and how quickly does the insulin come out?"

By incorporating blood vessels in their implant, he and Miller hope to allow their beta-cell tissues to behave in a way that more closely mimics the natural behavior of the pancreas.

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

Fresh off a $1.4B exit, this Houston innovator is focused on funding medical device tech

Q&A

Earlier this year, Houston-based serial entrepreneur Larry Lawson celebrated the exit of his medical device company, Preventice Solutions, which he sold to Boston ScientificBoston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal.

Nowadays, Lawson is laser focused on investing in the Houston innovation ecosystem, particularly in medical device, as well as working on Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization in the Texas Medical Center he co-founded with Kevin Coker.

Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, and his investment activity. He also shares how he sees the impact of COVID-19 and where Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem is headed.

InnovationMap: Earlier this year you saw an exit for your company Preventice Solutions, a company focused on the development of mobile health solutions and remote monitoring, which was sold to Boston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal. What did this deal mean to both you and the company?

Larry Lawson: It validated what I started back in 2004. I had an idea, And I moved forward on my idea — in the beginning completely financed that idea myself. I tried to raise funds, and it was very difficult here in Houston back in 2004 to do that. I put my money, you might say, where my mouth was and I started the company and funded it and built it to a point to where we attracted some venture capital from one of the world's largest VC groups out of California called Sequoia Capital. That allowed me to really increase our exposure and our footprint nationally. And it just grew and grew and eventually Boston scientific got interested in the company, along with Merck, a pharmaceutical company, and they bought smaller pieces of the company.

Then at the end of the year of 2020, Boston Scientific made a play to acquire the company completely. Frankly, it have been better. I would have never dreamt that my original company would be worth that much and sell for that much. So it was very nice for not only me, but for many other people that were employed by Preventice, because as a founder of the company, I knew how important it was to share equity with the people that really make the company run and make it run well.

IM: I noticed that you’re on the board of several Houston health tech startups — most of which I’ve covered on InnovationMap. What do you look for in a company before joining the board and what role do you play for the companies’ growth?

LL: First of all, I look at the people who are in the company — from top level executive level all the way down, even including the existing board members of the company. I only invest in medical device companies. That's what I know, and that's why I've spent over 50 years in, and I feel like I know it very well. I do not venture far off of that line or that path at all.

I look for a strong operating group. I look for strong leadership — and if I can bring even stronger leadership and have them get from point A to point B, I like to get involved. Given my medical as the chairman of the company.

IM: You started your investment firm in 2018 — what inspired you to create LAWALA Capital and what do you look for in potential portfolio companies?

LL: I really limit my investments to the medical device segment of health care. LAWALA is just me — it's the first two letters of all three of my names: Larry Wayne Lawson. How I got into investing and starting companies is I see opportunity, and I see voids in the industry.

IM: Speaking of, you founded Proxima Clinical Research in 2017, which has a very hands-on approach to accelerating health tech innovation. Why did you decide to start that up?

LL: I saw a void in the clinical research industry, specifically at the medical center here, the largest medical center on the face of the earth. And it was doing all of this attracting all of these companies, all of these health science companies into Houston, and they were building and budding their companies, but there was no centralized clinical research company to be there for them.

I thought, "my gosh, somebody ought to do this." Well, I'm a doer. So, I went to the powers to be at the medical center and got their approval to be the founder of a company, called Proxima Clinical Research, and the key is putting it right there in the heart of the largest medical center in the world.

It's been really, really good for these companies who are coming into Houston to take advantage of the life science growth that's taking place here in Houston.

IM: How did COVID-19 affect the work that you do?

LL: COVID really did not affect our business that greatly. It affected the investments that I was doing. I pulled back and cut my, expenses and that, because I just needed to see, you know, how the COVID thing would shake out. I'm watching my investments a lot closer today, and think that it's affected the startup companies, more because to be a startup company, you have to go out and find investors to invest in your company. And I think that process has been slowed, I won't say considerably, but I think it's been slowed quite a bit over the past year and a half.

It just so happens that in the industry that I've been in, which is patient monitoring — cardiac arrhythmia monitoring — COVID has heightened patient monitoring more than anything else. What we learned from COVID is that we've got to be more in tune ourselves than ever before in monitoring all aspects of ourselves. What has come out of this COVID pandemic is telemedicine, which has struggled for years, now all of a sudden telemedicine is on the tip of everyone's tongue.

And I think that's one reason why you see the big companies — the multinational, multi-billion dollar companies — getting more in patient monitoring.

IM: Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world — but it’s often times not listed as a top city for medical innovation. Is that changing? And if so, how?

LL: When the medical center purchased the old Nabisco building and turned that into a technology center and a startup center, it changed the whole complexion of the device and medical startup community here in Houston. We've had a lot of former development here through MD Anderson in oncology, but we'd never had very much in devices. Now, we have companies coming from Europe and Asia coming to Houston to promote their technology and the devices that they have built.

The Rice Business Plan Competition is the largest in the United States. We fund more startup companies out of RBPC. I'm talking Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley — Houston is number one. And that has a lot to do with what has happened in the medical center over the past seven or eight years.

IM: What more do we need, now that we've come this far to really push us into that innovative healthcare city status?

LL: Well, I think what we need is for investors investing in healthcare and not oil and dirt. For years and years, the whole economy was driven by oil and gas and real estate. And I can remember starting my first company, the early eighties, I went to banks to borrow money to start my first company, and all I wanted was $200,000. Well, that was still a lot of money back then, but they would literally fall asleep on me because they couldn't understand and didn't understand exactly what I wanted to do. And so I wound up having to fund myself use my friends and family as investors, but that's changed quite a bit. The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world. It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston-based BioTex works with medical device and health tech companies from all stages, from R&D to commercialization. Photo via biotexmedical.com

Houston medtech company helping to get health care innovations from idea to exit

future of health care

Founding a health tech company is a process unlike any other startup. From the regulatory phase to clinical trials, health tech innovators face a long runway from idea to market, but a Houston-based organization has been working for over 20 years to help make that take-off process run more smoothly.

Ashok Gowda founded BioTex Inc. in 1998, and at the time he was finishing up his PhD at Texas A&M University and wanted a company to support his own health tech ideas, including Visualase Inc. After the real-time tissue monitoring system exited to Medtronic for over $100 million, Gowda realized he can put everything he had learned from taking Visualase from idea to exit and apply it to new medical device innovation.

"Ultimately we built a nice infrastructure by supporting (the Visualase) spin out," Gowda tells InnovationMap. "And we learned a lot about not just product development, but about commercializing and creating a new market that may not exist. And we had some really good, experienced commercial folks we had hired on the Visualase side. I just think it's a good learning lesson that you can't really teach this stuff — you gotta experience it really to understand."

At this point, BioTex has worked with over 40 medical device and health tech companies in some capacity — from early prototyping and research and development to FDA approval, manufacturing, and even distribution. With a staff of around 50 and an 18,000-square-foot facility just south of the Texas Medical Center, BioTex can support around 10 to 15 clients at a time — usually in the medical device sector but across specialties from neurosurgery, cardiology, radiology, urology, gynecology, orthopedics, anesthesia, and more.

BioTex has an 18,000-square-foot facility just south of the Texas Medical Center with R&D space for its clients. Photo via biotexmedical.com

"It's a pretty broad experience, and I think it gives us a good perspective when we talk to a physician or a group of entrepreneurs — we can pretty easily get up to speed or understand the problem because we've usually worked in this space before," Gowda says.

With the infrastructure BioTex has in place, Gowda says he still sees one aspect of health tech development that needs more attention.

"There are obviously a lot of really good ideas here and a lot of push to try to get those ideas to market. But, there are very few of those that have gotten to market and to become commercial products," Gowda says. "It does require a lot of capital to bring medical technology to market — and it usually requires a lot of time as well."

Health tech founders facing the long runway of development usually need enough funds to support them through the process — as well as the know how and support BioTex has.

"We think we solve few of these problems with our in-house expertise, but the one that we are now focused on and trying to solve is the funding gap," Gowda says. "When we see a good idea or a technology, we want to help them get that to market and not let that lack of funding be an impediment."

Ashok Gowda is the president and CEO of BioTex. Photo via biotexmedical.com

A medical device coming out of the Texas Heart Institute has been recognized for its innovation. Photo via THI

Houston innovation team wins global award for painless heart technology

heart of gold

Houston's Texas Heart Institute's pain-free defibrillation technology was named the top future medical product design worldwide last month as part of the annual Create the Future Design contest.

The tiny technology aims to change the way cardiac arrhythmias are managed and remove the often traumatizing pain associated with their treatment. Developed by THI's Electrophysiology Clinical Research & Innovations team in conjunction with scientists at Rice University and UCLA, the technology allows doctors to place up to 12 tiny nodes around the heart to pace and defibrillate the heart without using a shock.

The technology will be most useful for atrial fibrillation and ventricular fibrillation, which can lead to sudden death, stroke, and congestive heart failure, according to Dr. Mehdi Razavi, the head investigator on this project and leader of the THI team. Razavi says winning the award "speaks to the need" of a new solution in the field as the shocks associated with traditional implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, or ICDs, can cause severe PTSD among patients.

"It's extremely painful. It's like someone takes a two by four and just pounds you from the inside in the chest, or a horse kicking you in the chest," Razavi says. He went on to add: "I have actually one patient who was a Vietnam veteran. He said nothing that he faced in battle was as disconcerting—not just because of the pain, but the fact that you don't know when the pain is when the shock is about to happen. That anxiety is just overwhelming."

Instead of shocking the patient's heart in a central location, the nodes spread energy needed to pace the heart at the correct rate throughout the muscle based on their location. This dilutes the feeling of a sudden jolt, and Razavi says, defibrillation using his technology could go unnoticed in patients.

In addition to this game-changing possibility, the new technology is physically safer in many ways, too. The miniaturized battery-less pacing system is free of traditional wires that send electrical pulses to the heart, known as leads. These leads can dislodge and fracture within the body and can cause infection.

The technology's wireless and miniature nature also allows doctors to better access regions of the heart that currently are difficult to reach with bulkier ICDs. Each node can be individually programmed and can stimulate different regions of the heart in different ways, as well.

A cross disciplinary team developed the device. Aydin Babakhani, an associate professor in physical and wave electronics at UCLA first developed the nodes to stimulate electricity for non-medical purposes. Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Director of the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, first introduced Razavi to Babakhani, and the trio worked together to bring the technology to the medical arena, along with about 15 to 20 other medical professionals and students.

The team at Rice is continuing to develop the hardware for clinical use. And studies on the use of defibrillation through these nodes across the heart are being conducted out to the Texas Heart Institute's research lab. Razavi and his team are currently conducting preclinical studies on the new form of treatment and aims to roll it out for clinical use in the next three to five years.

Diane Yoo, who was hospitalized due to COVID-19 earlier this year, created a VC fund that's investing in health tech solutions for the disease. Photo courtesy of Medingenii

Houston investor recovers from COVID-19 — then funds startups innovating solutions for the disease

money moves

While so many of Houston's venture capital groups and entrepreneurs have been figuring out the best ways to navigate fundraising amid a pandemic, Diane Yoo managed to close an oversubscribed initial fund and deployed investments into health tech startups during COVID-19 — while also recovering from the disease itself.

Entrepreneur turned investor Diane Yoo launched her health tech-focused venture capital fund, Medingenii Capital, last year, but didn't start fundraising for its initial fund until this year.

Yoo says she and her partners, entrepreneur and investor Greg Campbell, neurologist Dr. Eddie Patton, Dr. Sreedhar Mandayam, and investor Gen Fukunaga, were virtually meeting with over a dozen potential investors weekly and closed the round in under two months.

It was right around closing when Yoo says she caught COVID-19.

"It ravaged every part of my body, and I ended up having to be hospitalized because I couldn't breathe," she says.

Yoo recovered after a month and a half of enduring the disease, only to come out of that experience to fund innovative Houston companies working on COVID-19 solutions. Medingenii focuses on early stage health tech, including genomics, health IT, medical devices, and patient engagement.

"The pandemic has really validated some of the business models we're invested in," she tells InnovationMap.

One example from Medingenii's portfolio is Houston-based medical device company, Vitls. The company's technology includes a wearable device that can monitor vital signs and sync with a smartphone app and sends key information to doctors remotely.

As Yoo thinks back to her COVID-19 treatment, Vitls could have helped her and her fellow patients get out of the crowded hospital wing and home to recover sooner — with the peace of mind of remote care thanks to the device.

"When I was in the ER room, it was overcrowded," Yoo says. "If you were not seriously ill, they would dismiss you because there was just no room. But if you went home with Vitls, you could have sent all your vitals to your doctor from home."

Fueled by a mission to find more health tech solutions like Vitls and with the quick pace of her first fund — Yoo says she's already deployed the capital into Houston-based startups and is looking toward the second fund, which will again focus on Houston startups.

"We really love Houston," Yoo says. "We want to invest a lot of our fund here, and we continue to do that and plan to do that. We see a lot of opportunity in Houston and look forward to working with the innovation ecosystem here."

Chris Dupont, CEO of Galen Data, has seen his share of challenges and opportunities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo via galendata.com

With increased awareness in need for connected medical devices, this Houston startup fills the gap

Houston innovators podcast episode 41

For decades, medical device innovation has been improving the way patients are cared for, but only recently are innovators enabling important connectivity applications.

"Most legacy medical devices are not connected to the internet," says Chris DuPont, CEO and founder of Galen Data Inc. "All the new companies that are coming to us — the emerging wearable tech — connectivity is vital in their product roll out."

But with this internet connectivity, adhering to safety regulations adds costly and challenging obstacles for medical device companies. That's where Galen Data comes into play, and the Houston startup is seeing more of a need for its medical device cloud services now more than ever.

"COVID-19 has created all kinds of challenges — and I think in the long run, a lot of opportunities for Galen," DuPont shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I think there will be a heightened awareness for the need for connected medical devices."

Galen Data's technology enables better communication between the device, the patient, and the medical provider, and DuPont equates it to being able to have a system similar to a check engine light on your vehicle.

"Wouldn't you want to know if your drug pump was starting to have problems or if the electro mechanical systems were starting to fail?" DuPont asks on the podcast.

The company's technology also provides important medical data and information that can be crucial for detecting trends and predictability.

"There's far greater risk in not having access to certain critical data to that device," DuPont says when asked about the hesitation some people have regarding medical data in terms of privacy.

DuPont shares more about his company's recent growth, his most recent partnership with an Austin-based medical device company, and how he's observed Houston emerging medical device innovation ecosystem evolve over his decades of experience. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in August

where to be

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events — from Zoom panels to conferences — and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like demo days, workshops, conventions, and more.

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

August 4 — Bayou Startup Showcase

Join Rice University and the University of Houston to celebrate the launch of the newest startups from OwlSpark and RED Labs. The Eighth Annual Bayou Startup Showcase will have founders from Class 9 showcase their summer progress. Come listen to pitches, network and get a first look at Houston's newest startups.

The event is on Wednesday, August 4, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 5 — Ask-Me-Anything Event With Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Tackling Roadblocks as a Solopreneur

A Hello Alice alum and first-generation Cuban American, Carin Luna-Ostaseski has truly achieved the unexpected, launching her one-woman operation through crowdfunding and becoming one of the first Hispanic entrepreneurs in history to create a scotch whisky brand. During the virtual event, she'll answer all of your questions, offer tips on navigating uncharted territory in business, and share details on the newly launched Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch that's awarding $10,000 grants to small business owners of color.

The event is on Thursday, August 5, at 1:30 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — FTE Show: Creating a Digitally Enabled Innovation Community that Works with Jon Lambert and Lawson Gow

The way entrepreneurial communities interact and collaborate today cannot keep pace with the ever increasing speed of innovation. What are best ways to leverage physical and virtual hub interactions to create a digitally enabled innovation community with that works? Join The Cannon Founder Lawson Gow and CEO Jon Lambert as they share specifics around what they are trying, where they are getting traction and where they are most challenged.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — HealthTech Beyond Borders

This online event created to offer business opportunities and global collaboration focused on innovation and technology in medicine between companies in Chile and the United States. Join the International Summit to explore the future and impact of new technologies in the health sector.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Open Project Night: Building an Equitable, Inclusive and Resilient Houston

Impact Hub Houston is proud to bring you a monthly opportunity to come together to work on solutions for some of Houston's most pressing issues. Our city is full of changemakers across all ages, cultures, skillsets, and industries. This is your chance to conned and collaborate for the greater good.

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 5 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Women in AI USA: WaiACCELERATE 2021 Demo Day

Ethical leadership & business acceleration program, WaiACCELERAT USA, aims to bridge the gender gap in the industry and targets female innovators looking to start a business in the fields of AI, Machine Learning and Data Science. With the final Pitch Event "ACCELER-AI-TE!" organized in VR, we will celebrate 40+ impact and commercially-proof early-stage startups and their founders

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 6 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 12-13 — EVOLVE 2021: How AI is Transforming Industry

Join industry leaders from the world's largest and most innovative companies for this 2-day hybrid event featuring both technical and business presentations focused on the real-world value of Artificial Intelligence. Evolve will provide a unique, interactive experience where you will learn from and engage with thought leaders from across North America.

The event is on Thursday, August 12, to Friday, August 13. It's free and happening at Houston Marriott Sugar Land and online. Click here to register.

August 17 — Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything with Wogbe Ofori

Are you an entrepreneur starting a new company? Recently moved your company to Texas? Want to find out how to connect with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in the startup ecosystem? Join Capital Factory to hear an overview from experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, investors, and community partners at Intro to Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything. Get a chance to introduce yourself and ask any questions on entrepreneurship and other related topics.

The event is on Tuesday, August 17, at 2 pm. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 18 — Tips for Working with a Gen Z Intern

Ampersand CEO, Allie Danziger, will speak to business owners and founders on the benefits of hiring an intern for your growing business, and tips for managing a remote, or in person, intern. It has to be a lot more than just "getting coffee" in order to maximize the experience on both sides and Allie will talk through tips on clear communication, ideal assignments, best way to structure the relationship and more. She will answer attendees questions, live, and discuss real-life scenarios the aspiring professionals and business partners in Ampersand have faced.

The event is on Wednesday, August 18, at 11 am. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 19 — LatinX in Tech presented by Accenture

Capital Factory is dedicated to increasing diversity in the tech community and making its co-working space an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and identities. Attendees can look forward to a keynote address from a serial entrepreneur or investor, insightful discussion sessions, a startup showcase pitch competition, and informative panels.

The event is on Thursday, August 19, at noon. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 25 — The Cannon + Dell Pitch Party

Calling all member startups that are fundraising or are planning to open a round in 2021. The Cannon has partnered with Dell to host a virtual Pitch Party. Prizes will include up to $10k in Dell Equipment and the opportunity to pitch in the winners round later this year. If you would like to learn more and be considered to pitch, please fill out the application here.

The event is on Wednesday, August 25, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from energy to health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

Will Womble joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Will Womble describes his company, Umbrage, as fiercely loyal to Houston. The business, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed. Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert's company, ALLY Energy, has made an acquisition. Photo via Katie Mehnert

ALLY Energy announced it has acquired Clean Energy Social, a jobs and networking community for the clean energy industry. The deal expands ALLY's platform into the solar, wind, power, oil and gas, power and utilities, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture, and other sectors that make up the energy transition.

"It's time to tackle the enormous challenge of the energy transition by connecting companies and candidates to resources so we can reduce the time and capital it takes to recruit and reskill," says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, in a news release. "We can speed up decarbonization by centralizing resources into one digital experience. This acquisition is a much-needed human capital investment to advance net-zero goals." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

Saranas closed its series B round this week. Photo via Saranas.com

Saranas Inc. announced that it closed a $12.8 million series B investment led by Wisconsin-based Baird Capital, the venture capital and global private equity arm of Baird, a global company with a location in Houston. Austin-based S3 Ventures also supported the round. The company will use the funds to continue its clinical trials, per a news release.

"We are pleased to announce this round of funding led by Baird Capital," says Saranas President and CEO James Reinstein in the release. "It underscores the importance of real-time monitoring of bleeding complications and our opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of Early Bird. We look forward to expanding our clinical evidence through prospective clinical trials and launching next generation products, including Bird on a Wire, to address a much broader range of endovascular procedures." Click here to read more.

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.