in need of PPE

Houston tech community answers the call for medical equipment amid coronavirus-caused shortages

A startup and a nonprofit makerspace have rallied to create PPE, or personal protective equipment, for local hospitals. Getty Images

In the span of one day, the founders of Houston-based Lazarus 3D received calls from emergency room directors and physicians and vice presidents of hospitals explaining a dire need for personal protective equipment — like surgical masks and face shields — for medical professionals in the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.

"We stopped everything we were doing," says Jacques Zaneveld, co-founder of Lazarus, which makes 3D-printed human organs for surgeons to practice on. "We've moved 100 percent of our focus on developing PPE."

Now, Zaneveld with his co-founder, Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld, have manufacturing orders in for 700,000 surgical masks weekly and have designed a non-FDA approved face shield, which they have ordered a few million of. The duo has taken out a short-term loan to front the cost of the medical equipment and are now looking for the right customers to buy these new PPE products. All hospitals and medical professionals in need of supplies can head to Lazarus' website to request more info.

"Our personal feeling has been to do whatever we can do to build as many as possible," Jacques tells InnovationMap. "It's very stressful because I'm borrowing money that we don't have in order to set up these production lines."

On the other side of town, 3D printing nonprofit TXRX has reprogramed 30 of its 3D printers to make PPE. The nonprofit is working Memorial Hermann to quickly prototype and test items made with materials they can get their hands on.

The Center for Disease Control has relaxed some of the requirements for PPE in light of the crisis and shortage, and Roland von Kurnatowski, president at TX/RX Labs, says that has helped speed up their efforts. But, the biggest challenge, he says, has been to quickly get together a design and prototype for Memorial Hermann to give them feedback so that they can then produce the products.

"I think there are a lot of people out there producing devices, but I think the problem is there's not a lot of clarity around materials, quality, and acceptance. People are doing what they can with what they've got," says von Kurnatowski. "Our hope working with Memorial Hermann was to make sure we are devising and testing devices that are functional and appropriate.

TXRX is also relying on Memorial Hermann and others in the medical community to indicate which PPE devices are most needed. Currently, the nonprofit is printing 10,000 face shields for Memorial Hermann, but also has designs for N95 respirators, surgical masks, a positive air pressure respirator (or PAPR), Tyvek suit, and even a portable shield for the intubation process.

Von Kurnatowski says the Houston community can get involved by donating to TXRX's GoFundMe campaign. The 3D printing process is quick and local, but expensive and out of budget for hospitals, so TXRX is taking a loss on its products it is creating. The organization is also looking for people who might have 3D printing materials or experience to volunteer — TXRX has about 20 people working on this but hopes that number ramps up to 60 to 80 people helping out.

Crisis also brings the community together in their time of need — that's what Zaneveld says he sees happening.

"Everyone who is at all involved in the medical space in engineering in Houston is trying to put stuff out," Zaneveld says. "We're sharing information and trying to work together to support each other."

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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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