COVID heroes

Houston area high school students develop innovations to help  in coronavirus crisis response

Teens at a local school took initiative to create entrepreneurial solutions amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of The Village School

Some Houston-area high school students have stepped up to help their community during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The students have worked on two separate teams to create an intubation box to reduce the spread of COVID-19 from patients to healthcare workers and SpeeDelivery, an app that delivers food for at-risk individuals.

The students from The Village School in the Energy Corridor, known for its unique and enriching IB diploma, are getting support from school educators. The two projects grew naturally from the interests of the high school juniors, who wanted to do anything that could help others during this crisis.

"Our teachers have been very supportive have really enjoyed having the opportunity to see the students," says TeKedra Pierre, director of experiential learning at The Village School. "It's hard enough to teach virtually but with platforms like Zoom, Google classroom, and other platforms that they have been using to communicate and make sure that our students are still doing well."

The students created the intubation box out of clear plastic with two areas of access so that doctors can put their hands through it and intubate a patient who needs a ventilator. The box prevents exposure to the virus which can be passed in microdroplets from patients to healthcare workers.

"It's extremely easy to build and effective, most importantly affordable so anyone could use it," says Varun Agarwal, one of the students who created the intubation box. "Our catalyst was reading about the shortage of N-95 masks, so we made the box essentially open-source design in our website so that anyone can take the design and send it to a hospital."

Agarwal's website is a youth engagement initiative that he started with his older brother and some friends, called Do Your Bit. The intubation box is only one of many projects. The box has already been used by doctors in the Princeton Hospital System with significant positive results due to their reusable nature.

The SpeeDelivery students were also inspired to lend a helping hand due to the hardship senior citizens were experiencing not being able to go grocery shopping for their own safety. The app allows students to safely do grocery runs for older citizens in Houston, Katy, and Sugarland.

"We came up with the idea of SpeeDelivery because we wanted to help the community who could not afford to go out," said Omar Abouelazm, web developer for the project. "Village students have this tradition to help as much as possible."

The students have currently done 15 deliveries, using appropriate personal protective equipment. They are working to ramp up their delivery system to expand the number of deliveries.

"It's helped us have that commonality and a closer connection to our fellow students because we all want to help others during this difficult time," says Mukhil Ramesh, finance director for SpeeDelivery.

Pierre and the students say that The Village School's culture has nurtured and supported their projects to help the community.

"It's part of the culture at Village, our students come from all over the world," says Pierre. "I think their ability to identify problems or identify solutions is unparalleled. It's ingrained into our school culture to be innovative, creative, and think differently."

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Building Houston

 
 

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

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.

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