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Houston educator plans to lead her university into the future with her new role

Former University of St. Thomas business school dean, Beena George, is taking on a new role at the university: Chief innovation officer. Courtesy of UST

High school graduation numbers are decreasing, and, by 2025, far fewer college freshmen will be starting school. Some project as high as a 15 percent drop, says Beena George, inaugural chief innovation officer of Houston's St. Thomas University.

UST is looking forward to and anticipating changes and challenges within higher education like this, and one of the steps the university has been to create George's position.

"My role is to ferment that culture of innovation," George says. "Not just sit here and think of ideas."

As the school gets ready to welcome students back onto its Montrose campus, the former business dean gets ready to serve in her new role for the first semester. She spoke with InnovationMap about her career, goals, and the role UST plays within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap: What have you learned throughout your career that has prepared you for the role?

Beena George: I've always been interested in solving problems. If I saw something that was an opportunity, and we didn't take advantage of it, I'll keep thinking about it. I've been thinking about what makes me enjoy this role and stage in my career, and I think it's because most roles tend to be mostly operational, but this is thinking of new things and doing things differently and checking your own assumptions. That is what really engages me in my role. My career has given me different opportunities to use this, but not so much as now. When teaching, you have that opportunity every day — engaging students differently. Then as dean, it was about looking at new opportunities and programs for the business school, like our Master of Clinical Translation Management program.

IM: How did this clinical translation program come about?

BG: The idea of clinical translation is essentially to move a discovery from the lab to the patient's bedside — it's the commercialization of life sciences. The program trains students to shepherd a discovery from the lab to the commercial setting so that it's available to patients.It's a combination of business, life sciences, regulatory affairs. It's a one-year online program with some residency periods. It's the only of its kind in Houston and is one of less than 10 in the United States and, to my knowledge, the only of its kind in a business school.

IM: What does innovation mean to the University of St. Thomas and this inaugural position?

BG: I think innovation isn't entirely new on college campuses, but now is a time when higher education is in flux. There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way. Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase.

IM: What’s on your to-do list for this first year and within five years?

BG: Since this is a new role, my first goal for the next two to three months is the process of discovery — internally and externally. One of the cool things that's happening in Houston is all these partnerships and collaborations. That's what I'm trying to do — learn about the groups here and outside and make these connections. The other part of it is bringing information in from the outside. There are so many different ways of doing things. For instance, in higher education, it's been historically tied to credit hours. We know now there are many different ways to look at education. That's the kind of conversation I look to get started.

IM: You mention collaboration, and I think that’s key when it comes to higher education institutions within the innovation ecosystem, but how do you see that teamwork affecting the city as a whole?

BG: So I have been so glad to see that, because I've always believed that there has to be some competition — it ensures that everyone performs at their best. But there are some industries where you have to go beyond competition to the next level and manage competition and collaboration at the same time. We have two networks — Texas Medical Center and the academic partnership created by The Ion — and talk about what's happening on your campuses and how we can work together in Houston. There's also the 60x30 Texas, which has different advisory councils that offers that same conversation of collaboration to work together to meet our goals. Those types of conversations are important and having those types of venues to do that can have only a positive effect on Houston.

IM: How is UST finding new ways to prepare its students for the workforce?

BG: One thing that has gained a lot of attention here on campus is providing students with more experiential learning opportunities — more internships and apprenticeships and bringing the industry into the classroom. Carlos Monroy, a professor at UST, and his student worked on a project for the city. This is something that allows us to remain connected to the industry and it gives our faculty the idea of what the Industry needs and they can focus on that in the classroom.

IM: UST recently announced a major “renewal” plan. How is this going to affect innovation efforts on campus?

BG: I think the whole process is about innovation. What we have is an opportunity to recreate ourselves for the next millennium and create a sustainable operating model that will continue to provide for our students. I think it will affect everything.


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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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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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