Best in class

These are the 16 Houston startups coming out of UH's RED Labs and Rice's OwlSpark

CALI, a wearable physical therapy device for those with vertigo, pitched at the annual event. Photo via getcalibalance.com

For the sixth year, the University of Houston and Rice University have joined forces to give their student entrepreneurs a program to thrive in. RED Labs and OwlSpark, the two universities' accelerator programs, just concluded their seventh class with a presentation from the companies.

Over the past 12 weeks, these 16 startups and their teams of entrepreneurs have worked on their company, developing it, learning how to fundraise for it, and engaging with all sorts of other valuable resources and mentors through the program.

"With an emphasis on experimentation and rapid iteration, we teach disciplined startup strategies that help (students) have an eye for reducing risks and increasing odds," says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark.

This summer's cohort was hosted out of Station Houston this year, but the two universities have worked together since year two of each of their programs.

"We're very proud of our partnership, because in most other cities, two universities like this would probably be rivals, but we're interested in camaraderie and collaboration in this cohort because they are the future generation of entrepreneurs of Houston," says Kelly McCormick, director of RED Labs. "We really think that this sets an example of how working together produces better results than working against each other."

Adren

While the invention of the EpiPen and other compact anaphylaxis solutions have saved lives, the products are still too large to be constantly available to those who need it. Adren's co-founders created a collapsible autoinjector that can be work as a wristband.

"A functioning drug is only one piece of the puzzle," says Jacob, co-founder of Adren. (He didn't state his last name.) "Medication is only effective if it is accessible to the patient."

The company plans to continue on and patent their product with hopes to enter the marketplace by the next few years.

CookLab

Anyone can find a recipe for anything with the tap of a few keys and the click of of few buttons, but once you add in dietary restrictions, things get tricky. Not to mention the fact that so many healthy recipes aren't even that good for you.

The team at CookLab wants to eliminate this unregulated and confusing corner of the internet. CookLab's first product is a web tool that can determine whether or not a recipe is healthy by the user dropping in the URL. This product is in beta right now.

Down the road, CookLab wants to create a tool for users to be able to submit a recipe they want to make, then have CookLab generate a modified version that follows any dietary needs.

INSU

In a state of emergency where electricity is out, the diabetic population is forced to gamble with their lives when it comes to keeping their insulin insulated and cool.

INSU has a solution. The startup has created a battery operated cooler that can keep insulin from spoiling for 30 days. The battery can be charged by wall outlet or even solar panel.

The company plans to market directly to consumers as well as make strategic partnerships with emergency and health organizations.

auggie

Merchandise lines at concerts are quite possibly the single-most buzzkill of any show. In the age of UberEats and order-ahead apps, auggie sees a solution.

While you're at a show, you can easily order your favorite merch items on the app and choose to have it set aside for pickup that day or even get it mailed to you. The app is live on some downloading stores.

LilySpec

The speculum OB/GYNs use on their patients hasn't changed in 150 years, and, while effective, can be uncomfortable to patients during use. But this doesn't have to be the case.

LilySpec is a speculum designed with the patient in mind. The device is silently deployed, silicon coated for comfort, and adjustable for all women.

The LilySpec team will finish its clinical product this year, and the company's medical partners here in Texas will be able to use it on patients.

Myze

How do you staff a team for an unpredictable job? Emergency rooms face this challenge every single shift. Too many staffers makes the establishment bleed money, while too few causes burnout and even sacrifices quality of care.

Myze is developing a software platform that can use artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to help ERs better staff their teams.

CALI

Those suffering from Vertigo feel like the whole world has turned upside down. CALI is a device that helps those people turn it right back around.

The wearable device allows for users to do balance exercises and claim back control of their own situation.

DASH Innovations

For those relying on a catheter, changing it out requires 150 monthly procedures on average. Each one is another opportunity for infection.

DASH Innovations has created UrinControl, a urethral valve for pediatric patients that can be installed once a month and operated with a remote to control the bladder.

Get-A-Grip

Holding onto a cup is something most everyone takes for granted. For arthritis or muscle damage patients, it's a daunting daily task.

Get-A-Grip is designed to distribute the weight of the cup along the grip and make it easier and more comfortable to hold. While originally designed with these patients in mind, the grip comes in four sizes, with the smallest being perfect for babies grabbing at bottles or small children holding cups.

Everest Security

Preparing for and preventing phishing email-originated data breaches is the new normal for companies, but it's impossible to prevent employees from accidentally opening suspicious emails without thinking.

While there are plenty software protection companies out there, Everest Security couples their software solution with education, a core component for the company.

KickedOC

There are 2 million homes supposedly dedicated for off-campus housing for students, but no one-stop shop to find them. KickedOC is attempting to be that one-stop shop and make it easier for students to find their semester homes.

With listings already up in Houston, the startup hopes to expand its platform to College Station and other Texas college towns next.

Mismo Minds

Creating a creative team can be difficult if you don't have the connections already. Mismo Minds is a platform for artists, videographers, directors, etc. to join forces with others who share their creative vision. It's a social networking tool, project management platform, and job board all rolled into one.

Sports Betz

Typically for sports betting, you have two options: Impersonal bets with large pools or friendly wagers that might not ever pay off. Sports Betz is a platform where the competitive gamblers can casually bet with friends and family — but the money is pulled up front.

CIND

Chivalry is not dead, argues CIND, a new dating app. The app allows for potential matches to introduce themselves with a gift — which range from $2 to $100. Though, the recipient doesn't just walk away with the cash. The money actually goes to the recipient's nonprofit of choice. Only after the donation is made can matches start chatting.

CIND (pronounced like "Cindy") is basically digital donation dating, and everyone wins.

PCATCopycat

The Pharmacy College Admission Test isn't easy — and preparation isn't cheap.

PCATCopycat puts the power back into the hands of students. The online course is only $200 — way cheaper and easier for future pharmacists to navigate.

Second Act

Second Act is the startup that isn't. The non-company started the program with the idea of matching retirees with short-term work at various startups with the thought being that they have a lot of experience and a lot of time on their hands. While a great idea in theory, Second Act hit some walls and the company and idea are no more. The team, however, has a bright future in Houston innovation at other startups and companies.

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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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