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5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

Houston has a unicorn, The Ion has its first academic partnership, innovators to know, and more top news of the week. Courtesy of Rice University

Editor's note: The new year is officially in full swing, with Houston innovation news coming in hot — from a Houston business reaching unicorn status, or $1 billion in valuation, to news coming out of innovation hubs. Here's what this week's top stories were.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's innovators to know are focused on using artificial intelligence in data management, banking for startups, and 5G awareness in Houston. Courtesy photos

This year, Houston's innovation ecosystem is set to change tenfold — from the rise of 5G to burgeoning startup and entrepreneurial hubs emerging across town.

Today's featured innovators know a bit about these movements — from an entrepreneur using artificial intelligence in data management for his clients to a banking exec who went all-in on startups. Continue reading.Continue reading.

2 Houston startups land multimillion-dollar venture capital investments

Riversand and Gecko Robotics are starting of 2020 with fresh funds for scaling business. Pexels

Two Houston tech companies are starting off 2020 with fresh funds in their pockets — to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.

Houston-based Riversand raised an additional $10 million last month, and Gecko Robotics, which has an office in Houston, closed a $40 million series B round. Continue reading.

Local bank commits to Houston startup scene by setting up shop in The Cannon

As a part of a national trend, a Houston bank has moved into a space in Houston's largest coworking hub. Texas Citizens Bank/Facebook

Pasadena-based Texas Citizens Bank is getting cozy with current and potential customers at its new branch within The Cannon coworking campus.

Jimmy Allen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Texas Citizens Bank, says the bank's new 3,900-square-foot location — its seventh branch in the Houston area — fits perfectly within The Cannon's 120,000-square-foot building, which Texas Citizens helped build. The branch opened in December 2019; the grand opening is planned for February 2020.

"Owner-operated businesses are both the genesis of our business model and [a] key customer segment served," says Allen, who was named to his position in September. "A subset of that group certainly includes young, relatively new companies, which favor the current trend in coworking or live-work-play communities." Continue reading.

The Ion names inaugural academics partner, course programming for Houston hub

Rice University's Glasscock school of Continuing Studies is the Ion's first academic partnership to be announced. Courtesy of Rice University

A burgeoning entrepreneurship hub has taken a major step forward in its development with the announcement of its first academic partner and coursework for the partnership.

The Ion has teamed up with Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies to bring programming to the to-be hub, which is expected to open in early 2021.

"We are thrilled to extend our programming to the Ion constituents and Houston's innovation ecosystem," says Robert Bruce Jr., dean of Rice's Continuing Studies school, in a news release. "Continuing education, whether that takes the form of an advanced certificate or a single course, is an important part of the innovation lifecycle, and we are excited to provide this to Houston's entrepreneurs." Continue reading.

Houston SaaS company achieves unicorn status following $125 million fundraising round

Houston-based HighRadius has reported reaching unicorn status following a $125 million raise. Photo via highradius.com

Following the closing of a $125 million series B investment round, a Houston software-as-a-service company is boosting a new title: Unicorn.

HighRadius, an artificial intelligence-powered fintech software company, has announced its unicorn status, which is defined as being valued at over $1 billion. The series B round, which achieved this status for HighRadius, was led by ICONIQ Capital, with participation from existing investors Susquehanna Growth Equity and Citi Ventures, according to a news release from the company.

"Today marks an important milestone for HighRadius and we're thrilled to have ICONIQ join us in our vision to modernize the Order to Cash space," says Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, in a news release. "ICONIQ combines patient capital with a long-term vision of investing in category-defining businesses, and the firm has worked with some of the world's most successful tech entrepreneurs. We are building HighRadius into a self-sustaining, long-term category leader, and ICONIQ is a great partner for us in this journey." Continue reading.

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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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