research roundup

3 innovative research projects coming out of the University of Houston

From a new solar energy capturing and storing device to stem cell-based pacemakers, here are three game-changing technologies coming out of UH. Getty Images

Across the University of Houston campus, professors and researchers are creating solutions for various problems in several different industries.

From information technology benefiting police officers to stem cell-based pacemakers, here are three game-changing technologies coming out of UH.

A stem cell-based biological pacemaker

Photo via of UH.edu

A University of Houston associate professor of pharmacology is contributing to research that's taking stem cells found in fat and transforming them into heart cells to act as biologic pacemaker cells.

"We are reprogramming the cardiac progenitor cell and guiding it to become a conducting cell of the heart to conduct electrical current," says Bradley McConnell in a UH news release. McConnell's work can be found in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology.

The treatment could replace the more than 600,000 electronic pacemakers implanted annually, These devices require regular doctors visits and aren't a permanent solution.

"Batteries will die. Just look at your smartphone," says McConnell. "This biologic pacemaker is better able to adapt to the body and would not have to be maintained by a physician. It is not a foreign object. It would be able to grow with the body and become much more responsive to what the body is doing."

Suchi Raghunathan, doctoral student in the UH Department of Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy, is the paper's first author, and Robert J. Schwartz, Hugh Roy and Lillian Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of biology and biochemistry, is another one of McConnell's collaborator.

The use of information technology to protect law enforcement

Photo via of UH.edu

A tech-optimized police force is a safe police force, according to new UH research that shows that the use of information technology can cut down on the number of police officers killed or injured in the line of duty by as much as 50 percent.

"The use of IT by police increases the occupational safety of police officers in the field and reduces deaths and assaults against police officers," says C.T. Bauer College of Business Dean Paul A. Pavlou in a news release. Pavlou co-authored a paper on the research that was published in the journal Decision Support Systems.

Pavlou, along with his colleague, Min-Seok Pang of Temple University used FBI, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and U.S. Census data to build a dataset, which tracked IT use and violence against law enforcement from 4,325 U.S. police departments over a six-year period, according to the release.

The study focused on crime intelligence, prediction, and investigation. The potential for IT in the police force had yet to be realized because there hadn't been much research on the subject.

A new solar energy capture and storage technology

Image via of UH.edu

New research coming out of UH has created a new and more efficient way to capture and store solar energy. Rather than using panels that store solar energy through photovoltaic technology, the new method, which is a bit of a hybrid, captures heat from the sun and stores it as thermal energy

The research, which was described in a paper in Joule, reports "a harvesting efficiency of 73% at small-scale operation and as high as 90% at large-scale operation," according to a news release.

The author of the paper, Hadi Ghasemi, is a Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH. He says the potential is greater due to the technology being able to harvest the full spectrum of sunlight. T. Randall Lee, Cullen Distinguished University Chair professor of chemistry, is also a corresponding author.

"During the day, the solar thermal energy can be harvested at temperatures as high as 120 degrees centigrade (about 248 Fahrenheit)," says Lee, who also is a principle investigator for the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. "At night, when there is low or no solar irradiation, the stored energy is harvested by the molecular storage material, which can convert it from a lower energy molecule to a higher energy molecule."

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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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