best in class

University of Houston ranks among top schools for issued patents

UH has maintained its spot on the top 100 global universities for number of patents issued. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

A new ranking shows the University of Houston is flexing its brains and its brawn as one of the most prolific producers of patents in the academic world.

The new ranking, published by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association, puts UH at No. 88 among the world's top 100 universities for patent activity in 2018.

"As the UH research portfolio grows and the medical school starts up, we would continue to anticipate a strong IP portfolio going forward for UH," says Tom Campbell, executive director of the Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation at UH.

UH tied with the Texas A&M University on this year's list; each recorded 28 patents in 2018. A year earlier, UH received 39 patents. The University of Texas was the only other Texas school on the new list. With 187 patents issued in 2018, it landed at No. 5.

Houston's Rice University showed up at No. 79 on the 2018 list but dropped out of this year's top 100.

Amr Elnashai, UH's vice president and vice chancellor for research and technology transfer since 2017, says his school's appearance in the ranking reflects an emphasis on converting faculty inventions into meaningful innovations. During the 2018 budget year, UH collected $43 million in patent royalties.

Among the patents UH received last year were those for a mutant herpes simplex virus connected to cancer therapy and a rechargeable alkaline battery.

"UH researchers are driven by making a positive impact on the quality of life," Elnashai says in a release. "From new remedies for persistent medical conditions to sustainable energy technologies, researchers from the University of Houston are addressing many of the world's most pressing challenges. The UH ranking, tied with our larger neighbor Texas A&M, is a testament to our emphasis on and excellence in technology transfer and innovation."

To ramp up UH's impact, the university last year rebranded its research park as the UH Technology Bridge. With 30,000 square feet of incubator space and over 700,000 square feet of space for labs, pilot-scale facilities, and light manufacturing, the Technology Bridge houses 21 startups and two established companies.

"From clean energy solutions and medicines to uses of artificial intelligence, data science tools and other emerging technologies, the University of Houston is focusing on bridging the gap between technological discoveries by our faculty and actual products that change peoples' lives," Elnashai said in 2018.

The list from the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association started in 2013. UH first cracked the top 100 in 2016 (for patents issued in 2015). That year, it ranked 88th. UH dropped to No. 91 on the 2017 list but rose to No. 67 on the 2018 list.

"The patents our universities produce represent important processes and collaborations which have the potential to make a significant impact on society on a local, regional, national, and global scale," says Paul Sanberg, president of the National Academy of Inventors.

The annual ranking relies on data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office regarding utility patents, which make up 90 percent of all patents issued.

According to Investopedia, a utility patent covers the creation of a new or improved — and useful — product, process, or machine. This type of patent prohibits other people or companies from making, using, or selling the invention without authorization.

"Patenting an invention is the first step towards making a lasting impact on the innovation ecosystem," says Jessica Landacre, deputy executive director of the Intellectual Property Owners Association.

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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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