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

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.

Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Diagnosing doctors

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

Over 700 people watched TMCx's Demo Day either in person or online. Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

5 Texas companies present the future of health care at TMCx's Demo Day

Homegrown heroes

After four months of product design, networking with medical professionals, pitching to investors, and more, 23 startup leaders had just a few minutes to show the medical community what they've achieved and where they're going next.

Over 700 attendees made it to TMCx's 7th Demo Day or tuned in online to see the results of Houston's award-winning medical devices accelerator program.

"It's really the draw of the experts within our 23 hospitals and clinics that really makes us quite special in our ecosystem compared to the East and West coasts," Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon says. "We're proud to call ourselves the Third Coast of the life sciences."

The cohort, which is the most international to date with nine international companies, has already raised $73 million and confirmed 108 signed agreements for medical professional partnerships.

"The thing that cracks me up from time to time," says Erik Halvorsen, director of the TMC Innovation Institute, "is when you see these talks that say, 'what can the Houston ecosystem learn from Silicon Valley.' Well you know what, I think we're ready to flip that, and say, 'here's what can Silicon Valley learn from us here in Houston — what we've built and where we're headed.'"

From a wearable device that reduces back pain to a new technology that reduces suicidal thoughts, the cohort's presentations didn't disappoint. While all the cohorts made business connections to Houston in the months they were at TMCx, five of the 23 companies are based in Texas. Here are the companies with Lone Star State roots.

Articulate Labs

Articulate Labs' KneeStim allows for everyday activities to be muscle-building exercises.

Photo via articulatelabs.com

Herbie Kirn, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Articulate Labs, lost his leg from the knee down in a motorcycle accident and quickly wore through his other knee's cartilage. If he didn't do sufficient rehabilitation and physical therapy, he would lose function of that leg too.

Over 14 million people in the United States individuals suffer from chronic knee problems; however, whether it be due to time or cost, over 70 percent of those affected cannot attend the prescribed physical therapy.

Dallas-based Articulate Labs has a solution. The KneeStim device allows the patient to turn daily activities into rehabilitation exercises.

The company has raised a little over $500,000 already, but looks to raise $1 million with its next round of funding. Articulate Labs is also looking for more scientific and strategic partners.

Intelligent Implants

intelligent implants

Intelligent Implant's co-founder, Juan Pardo, told the crowd at Demo Day that his company's device allows for 50 percent faster bone growth in patients.

Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Chronic lower back pain can result in a need for spinal fusion surgery — and 40 percent of those surgeries fail, says Juan Pardo, co-founder of Intelligent Implants, which has an office in Houston. Pardo and his team have come up with an implant that tracks post-op healing and introduces electronic stimulation wirelessly.

The device is the same size and shape as the spacer that surgeons currently use, but contains a technology that can deliver electronic stimulation therapy and monitor progress without needing batteries. The doctor is able to adjust treatment remotely, and the device can heal the patient 50 percent faster than the standard care.

Intelligent Implants was announced as the first in-residence company at the Center for Device Innovation by Johnson and Johnson and also launched its large animal studies. The company has a goal to raise $1.6 million, and has already secured $900,000 — $250,000 of which came from the new TMC Venture Fund.

Noleus Technologies

Swarna Balasubramaniam, an experienced surgeon, created a device that heal gastrointestinal surgery patients faster.

Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Swarna Balasubramaniam watched helplessly as her mom slowly healed from gastrointestinal surgery. She couldn't eat and had trouble sleeping — both of which hindered her ability to heal quickly.

Balasubramaniam, founder of Houston-based Noleus Technologies, created a solution that reduces swelling in the bowels after operation. The disposable device is inserted into the abdomen at the time of surgery, and folds up like a fan to be removed without another surgery.

The invention is attractive to all parties involved. Patients are able to heal quicker, and surgeons are able to provide better care for their patients. Additionally, hospitals, which have bundled reimbursement for surgeries like this, are able to shorten the recovery time for patients thus reducing the costs spent on caring for the patient. Balasubramaniam says she estimates the device saving hospitals $4,000 per patient.

Vax-Immune Diagnostics

LabReady ensures samples make it from the patient to the lab without compromising the quality of the sample.

Photo via vaximmune.com

Over 70 percent of care decisions come from lab results, but more than 20 percent of microbiology lab tests are inaccurate due to problems in transport from the patient to the lab. Leonard Weisman, founder and chief technology officer of Houston-based Vax-Immune Diagnostics, invented Lab Ready — a tool for protecting the quality of the sample for testing.

The device is easy for patients to use at home and send to the lab directly, and the device is likewise easy to use by lab technicians.

Lab Ready is prepared to launch in 2019, immediately following FDA approval. Vax-Immune is on track to meet its funding goal of $5 million in the first quarter of 2019.

VenoStent

VenoStent wants every external stent procedure is successful on its first try.

Photo via venostent.com

Patients with kidney disease or diabetes have four chances to get an external stent successfully inserted into their arms for dialysis treatment, and the current standard of care results in a failure in half of these access sites, says Tim Biore, founder of Houston-based VenoStent.

It was Biore's vision to create a device that allows a successful stent implementation on the first try. VenoStent's SelfWrap is made from a shape-memory polymer that uses body heat to mold the stent into the vein-artery junction.

One in eight people suffer from kidney disease, and Biore says SelfWrap would save Medicare upwards of $200 million annually, while improving the success rate by 20 to 30 percent.

VenoStent has seven signed agreements from partners as a result of the accelerator program. The company is seeking $2.4 million to continue manufacturing as they await FDA clearance — expected in early 2022.

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Houston SaaS startup raises $10M to keep up with customer growth

money moves

A Houston software company has announced its latest funding.

Liongard, an IT software provider, has raised an additional $10 million led by Updata Partners with contribution from TDF Ventures — both existing investors in the company. The funding, according to a news release, will go toward providing the best customer service for Liongard's growing customer base.

The technology is providing managed service providers, or MSPs, improved visibility across the IT stack and an optimized user experience.

“Since working with our first MSP partners, we’ve seen time and again the power of visibility into IT data, reducing the time they spend researching customer issues and allowing them to respond faster than their peers,” says Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard, in the release. “This investment enables us to continue to achieve our vision of delivering visibility into each element of the IT stack.”

The company has about 2,000 partners in support of more than 60,000 end customers. And has been recognized as a top employer by Forbes and Inc. magazine earlier this year.

“We are excited to deepen our commitment with Liongard,“ says Carter Griffin, general partner at Updata, in the release. “With its leading data platform for MSPs we expect continued fast-paced growth.”

Liongard's last funding round was in May of 2020 and was a $17 million series B round. Both Updata Partners and TDF ventures were involved in that round. The company's total funding now sits at over $30 million.

Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

money moves

By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

guest column

Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.