Dr. Jason Burke received his medical degree from Duke University, and he built a career in anesthesiology so successful he once bought a Ferrari. "That was a nice car."
His partner, Darien Cohen, has a Ph.D. in cell biology from Dartmouth, and he used to work for Genentech before leaving to start a consulting business. "I specialize in protein purification and characterization."
These are serious credentials. So why are both men riding around Las Vegas in a renovated tour bus once owned by a Christian gospel group?
They saw a void and filled it.
Their bus — and their business — is called Hangover Heaven, a mobile clinic to cure, well, hangovers.
Last year, they treated 11,000 people in the party capital of America.
"I came up with the idea working in the recovery room," said Burke. He would treat people coming out of surgery who were suffering from headaches or nausea. "These medications are really the same treatments for what is a hangover." That was 2011, and Burke discovered there were no hangover clinics in Las Vegas, just "a couple people running around with a bag of saline." Contrary to popular opinion, dehydration is only one part of a hangover.
Burke created his own cure in an IV and became "patient zero" one morning after waking up with a hangover ("we had a big wine dinner the night before"). After administering the IV, Burke said, "It was amazing. I didn't realize it would work that well."
He set about starting Hangover Heaven. At first, Burke planned to rent a physical space across from The Hard Rock and remodel it. However, the owner wanted him to sign a five-year lease. "I would have been on the hook for about $600,000 if the thing didn't work out," he said. "That's a lot of money, even for an anesthesiologist."
The doctor was ready to give up, and he sent in paperwork to the state to dissolve the company before it even started.
Then one day Burke got an idea (how often have you heard those words in a story about a successful start-up?). He realized people suffering from hangovers in their hotel rooms wouldn't want to go to a clinic, even if a shuttle picked them up. So why not bring the clinic to them? "I thought, 'Let's just treat them ON the transportation.'"
Burke then went hunting for the right vehicle, and he finally decided on a tour bus, paying $60,000 for one which had been used by a gospel band in the Northeast. He spent another $100,000 fixing it up so air conditioners could handle the Las Vegas summer. He also added everything necessary to treat multiple hangovers at once — including hooks along the ceiling mirror for several IV lines. "I actually had to sell my Ferrari to pay for that bus. That was painful," he said dryly. "Yeah, people shed lots of tears."
Around that time, Cohen, the Ph.D. in cell biology, joined up. Cohen is a family friend and godfather to Burke's children, and Burke needed him to operate the business. Cohen said his job was to make sure "we had the requisite bells and whistles to allow us to have robustness that any business needs to deal with the volume of patients we were beginning to see."
At first, however, Las Vegas casinos were not fans of the idea. They didn't want a large bus pulling up with "Hangover Heaven" splashed across the side. "They were way way way shields up," said Burke. Eventually, however, that attitude changed. "They've seen that we get their clients feeling well, and get them back to their vacation."
The men say business is growing 30 to 40 percent a year. Super Bowl weekend alone brought in about 300 people. They now have added a brick and mortar clinic west of the Strip and provide in-room visits to many casinos. The average treatment costs $225, and most customers are around 40 years old.
Burke said they're often people in town for a convention or business meeting. "They'll hit the day club and the night club," he explained. "During a 12-hour period they may have had 10 or 12 drinks." Any billionaires? "Oh yeah." Also famous movie stars, athletes, musicians. No names of course — "Whatever happens at Hangover Heaven stays at Hangover Heaven."
So does the Hangover Heaven cure work? There was only one way to know.
One day recently I arrived at the Wynn Resort and began a night of responsible drinking. It started with a couple glasses of red wine at dinner. However, I knew that to achieve a hangover, I would need some tequila. To keep myself out of trouble, I retired to my hotel room and drank, well, a lot of tequila.
Awaking the next morning, I had a pretty serious hangover. I think I may have gotten sick during the night, though there was no evidence of it. I discovered that I had sent at least one iPhone video to my producers which I don't even remember making.
On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst hangover ever, I was hovering around an 8. Headache, nausea, fatigue and a general feeling that I would never do this again, not even for a story.
I hobbled down to the Hangover Heaven bus parked outside the Wynn Resort to meet Burke and Cohen. They checked my vitals and asked me about my symptoms. Soon I was hooked up to an IV with a little pediatric needle (I hate needles), and I spent the next 45 minutes taking in two bags worth of fluids ... a combination of saline, vitamins, ibuprofen, anti-nausea meds, and a proprietary concoction of substances like glutathione and taurine to attack "oxidative stress and free radicals."
Twenty minutes later, the headache was gone, and 20 minutes after that, so was the nausea. By the time the 45 minute treatment ended, I felt a mix of exhaustion and elation.
Burke and Cohen were not surprised. They'd seen much worse, what they call their epic hangovers — "People who've thrown up 30 or 40 times."
When asked if their business model encourages overindulgence, the doctor argued his service does quite the opposite. It actually reduces overall alcohol intake. "People will go to sleep and wake up with a bad hangover, and they basically start drinking again.
The in-room treatments have been eye opening for Cohen, who describes himself as "a conservative boy" from Savannah, Georgia. One weekend he was called to help provide treatments for people attending the annual adult video convention in Vegas. "I've never been around porno people before, so that was a little nerve wracking," he laughed. "When we arrived at the room, I could look through the doorway, and there was a completely naked woman."
Cohen is helping expand the business to hangover prevention pills and other nutritional supplements which they sell online. There are plans to go in an entirely different direction and open up urgent care centers overseas where Americans will feel comfortable seeking medical help. Everything, the two partners say, is self-funded, without investors.
Hangover Heaven is the sixth business Burke has launched, not counting the candy resale business the doctor started in high school ("the margins on it were excellent"). Past ventures included an online review website site for traveling physicians, a surgery center and an online job board for doctors. "I like finding challenges. Starting a business is competition really to see if you can do it better than other people can."
Both men are reluctant to talk specifics about profits, though they say they've long been profitable. Their caution is based on snooping by copycats. "It's amazing the amount of backstabbing and just the really nasty behavior that goes on with people," said Burke.
However, the biggest challenge both men face is customer confidence. "There have been so many touted hangover cures that have been put out ... you know, snake oils," said Burke. He hopes to convince more people his solution is a cut above. "Hangovers have plagued mankind for about 8,000 years," he said, "and now there was an actual cure."
The only thing it can't cure? "Regret."