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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ExxonMobil announces $100B carbon-capture hub for Houston area

greener thinking

In a move that would be a gamechanger for Houston, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel.

ExxonMobil foresees the Houston Ship Channel being the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. In a blog post on the ExxonMobil website, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, says Houston would be "the perfect place" for the project because:

  • The ship channel is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants.
  • The geological formations in the Gulf of Mexico could "safely, securely, and permanently" store tons of carbon emissions under the sea floor, according to the blog post. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the storage capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast could handle 500 million metric tons of CO2.

Irving-based ExxonMobil, which employs more than 12,000 people in the Houston area, says the project could capture and store about 50 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. By 2040, that number could rise to 100 million metric tons.

"We could create an economy of scale where we can reduce the cost of the carbon dioxide mitigation, create jobs, and reduce the emissions," Blommaert tells the Reuters news service.

In a news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauds the ExxonMobil plan.

"This proposal by ExxonMobil is the type of bold ambition and investment we will need to meet our climate goals and protect our communities from climate change," Turner says. "ExxonMobil's proposal represents a significant step forward for the energy industry, and I hope it brings more companies to the table to help Houston lead a global energy transition."

Turner notes that the Houston area is home to some of the largest emitters of carbon in the U.S., adding that everyone has "a responsibility and role to play in decarbonization."

Blommaert says the project would require public and private funding, along with "enhanced regulatory and legal frameworks that enable investment and innovation." According to Politico, ExxonMobil wants the federal government to kick in tax breaks or to set carbon-pricing policies to help get the project off the ground.

Politico reports that the Biden administration isn't considering ExxonMobil's idea as it prepares a climate-change package.

"Meanwhile, environmental groups and many Democrats have slammed carbon-capture proposals as a climate strategy, saying the only way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution is a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels," Politico says.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency maintains that carbon capture and storage "are critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path." Achieving net-zero goals "will be virtually impossible" without carbon capture and storage, the group says.

ExxonMobil announced creation of its Low Carbon Solutions business unit in February as part of its push to invest $3 billion in lower-emission energy initiatives through 2025. Low Carbon Solutions initially will focus on technology for carbon capture and storage. The business unit is exploring opportunities along the Gulf Coast, as well as in Wyoming, Belgium, the Netherlands, Qatar, Scotland, and Singapore.

Last year, ExxonMobil hit the pause button on a $260 million carbon-capture project in Wyoming due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bloomberg news service.

In a December report, the Global CCS Institute, a think tank, said 65 commercial carbon-capture projects were in various stages of development around the world.

"Climate ambition, including efforts to decarbonize industry, has not been curtailed despite the adversities faced in 2020," Brad Page, CEO of the institute, says in a news release about the report. "We're continuing to see an upward trajectory in the amount of CO2 capture and storage infrastructure that is being developed. One of the largest factors driving this growth is recognition that achieving net-zero emissions is urgent yet unattainable without CO2 reductions from energy-intensive sectors."

Newly appointed innovation leader calls for more health care collaboration in Houston

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 80

Allison Post is a professional dot connector for the Texas Heart Institute. Located in the Texas Medical Center and founded in 1962, THI has long had a history of innovation — from Denton Cooley, THI's founder, performing the first artificial heart implementation in 1970.

Now, Post — who was appointed to a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships — is focused on working with THI's latest generation of cardiac health innovators. She works internally to foster and support THI's brightest inventors as well as externally to make sure the institute is bringing in the best new technologies out there to its patients.

"The whole mission of the Texas Heart Institute is to help our patients. If that means that someone else has an incredible idea we want to jump onboard and bring it to people," Post says in this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Post, who has a bioengineering background and has worked on both sides of the table as an entrepreneur and a startup mentor, is looking to support breakthrough cardiac innovations within stem cells, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and more. And unfortunately, the cardiac health space has an increasing need to develop new health care solutions.

"Because of the growing burden of heart disease, heart failure, coronary artery disease, the unfortunately long list of things that can go wrong with someone's heart means the pressing need for therapies is just growing," she says on the show. "We're trying to keep up and break into things that people haven't done a lot of work on, such as women's heart health."

Another factor in Post's role, which she's had since last fall, is to bring THI further into both the TMC's innovation efforts as well as the greater Houston innovation ecosystem — as well as beyond. To her, Houston has a huge opportunity to lead health care innovation.

"It makes no sense that we aren't the health care leaders yet in med tech development. It should not be Boston, San Francisco, or Minneapolis. It should be Houston," Post says. "We have everything we need to do it. We just need to bring it all together."

The key to getting there, she says, is further collaboration. If there's one thing the world has learned about health care innovation from COVID-19, it's that when experts are rallying behind and collaborating on solutions, the speed of development is much faster.

"The more minds we have the better the solutions I going to be," she says.

Post says that she hopes her work at THI can inspire other institutions to collaborate ‚ since everyone has the same goal of helping patients.

"I only see just phenomenal things for Houston, and what I really want is for the Texas Medical Center to become even more interconnected. We've got to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts and intentions seamlessly between these institutions and right now there are a lot of barriers," Post says. "And I really think Texas Heart is hopefully going to serve as an example of how to take down those barriers."

Post shares more about what she's focused on and where THI is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

out of this world

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space."

The program's existence was possible through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center, DivInc, and The Ion — as well as a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency.

Here are the four companies to take part in the cohort, according to the release:

  • Axialnics Systems Inc., led by Vincent Mbuvi, is an aerospace technology platform developing a Disc-wing Rotor Aircraft Concept, which takes-off as a helicopter, carries as much payload as an airplane and flies just as fast beyond the range of typical helicopters. The innovation solves runway inefficiencies and enhances military efficiency.
  • Boozed Beverages LLC, led by Damyanna Cooke and Jim Luu, specializes in intelligent vending in the liquor industry. The company provides a contactless, AI-driven cocktail making and dispensing vending machine, for locations such as weddings and events, sporting venues, festivals, restaurants, and nightclubs and lounges.
  • NANCo Aero, led by Shern Peters, provides urban air vehicles and drones to commercial, small business, government, and nonprofit organizations. It is working to develop the first Hybrid Personal Air Vehicle capable of transporting a family over the city of Houston.
  • Stratos Perception LLC, led by Rube Williams, develops artificial intelligence solutions for space systems to benefit human productivity, safety, and enterprise. It is also developing an intelligent transducer, a tool that can monitor and control multiphase flow, for use in space such as lunar water extraction and waste processing.

The hub and its associated accelerator will be housed at The Ion when it opens up later this year — along with the organizations other accelerators — but the program is being launched virtually on Wednesday, April 21, at noon.

"The Aerospace Innovation Hub came from the idea that the aerospace industry is well-known in Houston but for many people, particularly underrepresented communities, there have been barriers in entering the aerospace industry," says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By offering mentorship, introduction to capital and training opportunities, with significant backing from Microsoft, The Ion is working to remove the barriers."