Sunday, October 4, 2009

A food or a supplement?

I’ve been at the International College of Integrative Medicine conference this weekend.  This is a group of both traditional and non-traditional medical professionals who take a very biochemical approach to medicine.  This leads them to care a lot about diet because its probably one of the variables that most influences our body chemistry that we can actually control.  These are very smart people and I started out feeling a bit daunting to be there with our whey products when I’m neither an MD nor a PhD.  I ended up learning a lot and am really convinced that I’m absolutely on the right track with our products and proud of what we’ve accomplished.


One of the most thought provoking issues that hit me at the conference was what is the role of a whey product like ours that is naturally good for you versus products that isolate various components from whey and deliver them separately.  Whey protein, processed the way we do, contains lots of protein, the most complete branch chain amino acids available in a protein, trace minerals, immunoglobulin’s, cysteine that the body converts into glutathione, lactoferrin, glycomacropeptides, alpha and beta lactalbumens.  All of these things are good for us.  It is, however, possible to buy products that consist of each of these things in isolation, or various combinations of the components that have been engineered to be “optimal” for some purpose.  So which is better and for what? “Optimized” products or one that preserves the integrity of the whole that nature presented us with?


My “green” inclination is to say that we run into problems when we try to engineer things to work better than they appear in nature.  Yes we can accelerate the process of natural selection by gene transfer instead of traditional plant breeding techniques, but is the result something we really feel comfortable having in our food chain?  Yes it is possible to go on line and order a packet of alphalactalbumen, but what is the benefit of consuming that product absent all of the other components of milk that would naturally accompany the alphalactalbumen? 


The issue becomes more confusing when we’re faced with a situation where most of us are living lives of bioaccumulation of toxins in our environment and bodies, to a degree and at a speed that nature clearly didn’t intend.  Does that mean we should ignore natural alternatives in favor of more isolated solutions when we suspect that we know they will work?  For example, there is mounting evidence that kids with autism tend to be deficient in glutathione, the body’s powerful antioxidant.  This makes them highly sensitive to toxins in their environment and food.  There was a product at the expo, a syrup for kids, that was designed specifically to produce glutathione.  Our whey protein contains cysteine which the body converts into glutathione.  Which is better?


The sales rep for the product said that kids with autism are allergic to dairy and have guts that can’t absorb cysteine, and that their product delivered higher levels of glutathione than whey products do.  Alternatively, I had docs tell me that kids with autism tend to be allergic to casine but don’t have problems with whey protein, and that they wanted those kids to get the benefits of the other things that occur in whey protein and not just the glutathione.  They pleaded with me to submit our products to clinical research trials.


While I understand their dilemma, I struggle because I know how difficult it is to do a controlled study of something like the affects of dietary use of whey protein.  Unless we can control everything people are eating and are exposed to over a long period of time, it is very difficult to obtain scientifically reliable results.  This is the same reason it has been hard to document the health benefits of eating organic versus conventionally produced foods. 


All of which leads me to think that there are times when common sense may be the best approach.  Maybe we can think of food as creating an environment in which both health and disease are incubated.  When we keep our body chemistry healthy eating clean foods like whey protein, we create a climate in our body that can prevent the occurrence of more severe problems.  When severe problems occur, the body is better armed if we’re eating well than if we’re not. 


So maybe kids with autism could benefit from both eating whey protein and taking a supplement to further increase their glutathione?  Maybe that means that a natural whey protein like teraswhey is really a food not a supplement?  Hmmm.





















Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Saga of Socially Responsible Sourcing – Chapter Three. Non Profits Are No Better

Frustrated with the situation with my blender, I turned to a non profit organization my daughter has interacted with over the past few years.  They are working with indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorean Amazon to take their organic cocao, process it in Quito into chocolate bars and cacao, export it into the US and sell it at Whole Foods.  They were even on 60 minutes for their achievements.  Amazing. 

So, I thought, I’ll talk to them about buying cacao from them.  Should be a no brainer.  My daughter and I work in the same region of Ecuador and could do a water project in their community.  I could visit their farmers and know where my cacao is coming from.  Could be really powerful.

To my chagrin, the same people who used to be friendly collaborators in the cause of preserving the Amazon for all of us by giving indigenous people the opportunity to earn an income while sustainably harvesting cacao, have now embraced the no transparency mantra.  Apparently someone in Bolinas CA visited their farms and professed to use their cacao when in fact they were using cheaper stuff.  So, no more transparency.  I am not welcome to visit their farmers and apparently can’t even buy cacao from them, all because I asked to visit their farmers while I was in the same region of the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Makes me wonder what they are hiding, not a good plan for an organization that professes to be doing what it’s doing on 60 Minutes….

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Saga of Socially Responsible Sourcing – Chapter Two. The Blenders.

Turns out that when a person wants to make a whey protein product for human consumption, there are only  handful of companies in the US that can help.  Unless you want to purchase expensive precise blending and packaging equipment, it’s difficult to make these products yourself.  Also, a typical nutritional supplement product contains many different ingredients, all of which can be difficult to source, have minimum order quantities, etc.

As a result, we all work with companies who  source ingredients, blend, and package products.  These companies are wonderfully helpful, but there’s a problem.  They consider the source of their ingredients (and by extension, my ingredients) to be proprietary information.   Their suppliers, ingredient companies, consider their sources to be proprietary, the importers who supply them consider their sources to be proprietary.  The result of all of this is that it is completely impossible for a company like mine, which works with suppliers who all know their farmers personally, to know the other farmers who grow or gather the wonderful fruits and stevia we use unless we source everything literally ourselves, import it ourselves, and force the blenders to blend our own proprietary ingredients.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Saga of Socially Responsible Sourcing – Chapter One. The Problem.

I work with small specialty and artisan cheese plants that are nestled in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin.  They get their milk from small family farms.  One of my plants even takes milk in metal cans that the Amish deliver on horse-drawn wagons. 

So when it came time for me to develop our whey products, I really wanted to make sure that we knew where all of our ingredients came from.  One way people suggest that I do this is to source everything locally.  Nice idea, but I live in Wisconsin; it’s hard to get things like chocolate and vanilla locally.  These are the two most popular flavors for whey products, by far. Also, as someone who lives with indigenous people in the Amazon for fun, I know what a huge positive impact we can have when we responsibly source products from indigenous and other at risk communities around the world.  To me, the whole local food thing is really just another form of American myopia; I don’t believe that an apple grown within 10 miles of home that was drenched in pesticides and herbicides is better than an organic apple from Mexico because it didn’t travel as far.  It may actually use more petroleum based products than an organic apple from Mexico because apples are shipped in truckload quantities.  For me, knowing that I can make a huge positive impact in this world when I purchase things from people who are environmental and social stewards is far more important than distance.

After some effort, I still don’t know where all of my ingredients come from.  I am, however, a very persistent person, so I am determined to find a way to source with total transparency.  It may take me years to achieve this, so this is likely to be the first of a long series of stories  that will take me from the typical intentionally obfuscated way that food and supplement products get assembled in this world to an alternative that offers global transparency. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wow.  After so many months of legwork, groundwork, and every other kind of work you can imagine, things are now moving at a furious pace.  The first bag of powder out of our dryer landed on my desk Friday afternoon.  We're adding another half time staff person this week, which will put us at 7 1.2 fte employees.  By the end of the month we will be up to 11; by the end of April we'll be up to 14. We have our first signed contract for a significant volume of bulk organic whey and our first letter of intent to purchase goat whey.  So, things are moving full steam ahead.  Like most startups, we're in a race to get cash flow moving and we're doing it in the worst economy in living memory. What could possibly be stressful about this???

Canoecopia was a great success! We have the first 100 qualified customers in our sales database and a ton of feedback from real customers.  Interesting thing number one: at least 75% of the people we talked to who were seriously interested were women.  Another group was men who currently take whey protein with creatine and other additives in it who thought their wives would like this product better.  Most saw it as something convenient for camping and canoe trips and as a permanent change for their diet.  We now have customers from throughout Wisconsin, Chicago, and even NYC.  A number were planning to share our story and products with members of their family.  Lots of people had questions about the health benefits of whey. While only some of the potential customers envisioned using the whey powder on trips, there is clearly overlap between our target market and the paddlesport crowd.  And it really is amazing.  We talked about developing products and targeting them toward women, without customizing them to the point where they wouldn't work for men.  The result is just as we anticipated. That is certainly gratifying.  That and being able to work with people on something as important as their health and the health of the planet.  

Friday, March 13, 2009

teraswhey's maiden voyage

We're loading in for our first tradeshow and the first public display of our brand.  Wow.  It’s a great place to do it.  Right in Madison.  Canoecopia, the biggest paddlesport show in the country.  It’s open to the public so we’ll get the chance to trial our products with 22,000 people in our target market.  Our booth is my kayak, which now has teraswhey bumper stickers on it.  We actually have a backdrop sign with a huge teraswhey on it and mocked up packaging.  Our own products wont be available for about another month but we have R & D trial samples for some of our flavors.  

All a grand experiment.  It feels like its time for this brand to finally come out of the closet, albeit a bit before its time.  We’ll get  a lot of great tasting and pricing feedback, start developing a mailing list, and learn more about opportunities to work with outfitters, outdoor events, publications to get the word out about our brand. 

Of course, this means we need to have web ordering capability up and running asap.  This startup thing is unreal.  No matter what we manage to accomplish, there always seems to be something else that needs to happen next.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

There is another way (whey..??)

Next week four new people will be joining our company. We advertised for entry level production people, team leads, and a Maintenance Manager.  We’re a small start up company, which means that we may not be paying the highest salaries or able to promise the most job security (although these days, it may be that a start up is actually less risky than working at an old company that’s been doing the same thing in the same way for years…).  We are providing a good benefits packaging including health insurance, 401k match, and a pristine and healthy work environment.  We are now pushing 400 applications for 20 jobs.

As we interviewed for our first crew, it occurred to me that the leaders of our country ought to be feeling a moral obligation to create businesses that can provide employment to people like these.  These were all hard working people.  Many said that it was driving them crazy to not be working, that all they wanted was a job of any kind, that their businesses had failed and now they needed any kind of job to survive, that their kids were sick and they couldn’t take them to the doctor because they had no health insurance.

I wonder about the stimulus package; it helps keep teachers and local government employees employed, which is a good thing, but doesn’t appear to do much to make it easier for businesses like mine to hire people.  Similarly, I still hear local policymakers talk about providing tax incentives for investors in early stage high tech companies, companies that the hundreds of people who applied for my jobs will never hire because they don’t remotely have the right skills.  Apparently these supposedly progressive policy makers buy into the same trickle down theory of economic policy that got us into this mess in the first place.  What are we thinking?  We may be experiencing the worst economic downturn of the past 50 years, but we are still the richest country in the world.  We can do better than this!

I founded my business in part to demonstrate that sustainability and stewardship, in terms of the environment, culture, ethics, can be woven into the very fabric of a business without compromising results. Little did I know how timely that message would be.  In a time where people fear for their future, my company is a great example of the kind of business we need to create to ensure prosperity in our future and our childrens’ futures.  It creates high tech manufacturing jobs, is rooted in the local economy and can’t be off-shored, all while being an environmental steward that is committed to improving the lives of the people who buy its products.  

 Maybe its time that we started talking about what we’re going to create instead of mourning what we’ve lost.  What would happen if we all used this time to take a stand for the earth and said we didn’t really need all of that stuff we were buying anyhow?  What if we all bought compact florescent light bulbs, drove less, planted gardens, got exercise, ate healthy foods, started sustainable businesses?  There is another way and we get to stop waiting for someone else to give it to us and start doing the hard work of creating it ourselves.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Blue is the New Green

Last month I decided right before the end of the year that it was time for me to buy a Ford Escape Hybrid.  We had 40 plus inches of snow in December, I am driving back and forth in the country a lot these days to get to my whey plant, and doing this with two wheel drive was just not working.  I wanted to buy a domestic hybrid so I can be the change I want to see in the world.  The trouble was, midwest dealers didn't get many of the hybrids and I had three days left in December to get a car if I wanted to get the tax credit in 2008.  I ended up buying one in Raleigh, NC and driving it back to Wisconsin with my daughter Lex.  I had no choice what color or what features would be in the car.  It was blue.  At the time I was disappointed because I  thought I wanted a green car (green company - green car, right?) or white (whey is white - white car, right?).  

Fast forward a month and I'm in the final throes of developing our brand and product logo.  We were working with a comp that had a blueberry on it and the logo was blue.  Not just any blue but the same silvery grey blue of my car.  I thought we were going to switch out the colors with the flavors, then learned that it was in fact going to remain the same blue as my car. So I've got a blue car, a blue brand and a blue logo, and I realized last night that its only a matter of time before blue becomes the next green.  Millions of people on the planet already no longer have access to clean water.  The situation is deteriorating on every continent on the planet.  
When the world realizes that we're running out of clean water, we're going to be talking about businesses going 'blue' instead of just 'green'. My business is already a blue business, in the sense that we are implementing a tremendous amount of water recovery and reuse in our process.  So blue, it's already the new green, at least in my life and business.

Slumdog Millionaire Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday.  I spent the day with my daughter working on Sacha Yaku, the non profit she and I started together, then we went to see Slumdog Millionaire.  I'm at a point in my life where actually having any of my kids home is a treat, so having Kendra here on my birthday was amazing.  Kendra is in between trips to the Amazon and Cuba, always working to make the world a better place for those most vulnerable.  Kendra starting including Gandhi's quote, "We must be the change we want to see in this world" at the bottom of all of her emails when she was 16.  Since then she has gone on to create more positive change in the world than many people do in a lifetime.  

Four years ago, Kendra took her personal journey to the next level by spending a semester in the Himalaya's.  She worked in an orphanage for severely malnourished children in Darjeeling, did a two week silent retreat in a monestary outside of Katmandu, trekked in the mountains with sherpas and visited Llasa in Tibet.  So seeing Slumdog Millionaire with her meant we could go to dinner afterward - Indian food of course - and reflect on the depth and the art of that movie with the benefit of her direct experience.  Nestled safely within the lame pretense of a game show and with all of the colors of india, the film powerfully addressed religious, caste, class, economic, and social dynamics that are India.  It also dove into the wellspring of fate that is so much a part of the belief system of many people in that part of the world and bundled up love with it.  

I used to be a complete pragmatist who believed that we achieve great things in the world by working hard and making sound decisions.  Now I believe that how we show up in the world for others may be even more important than all of the pragmatism in the world. When Kendra was a freshman at MIT she started work on the improbable and seemingly impossible task of making a World-bank funded, then orphaned, water project work in an indigenous community in the Amazon.  Over the years her hard work with the people has certainly been a component of her success in getting the system working and extending it to other communities.  What has clearly been more important is her unswerving faith that the community would get clean water and her clear intention to keep supporting the community until that happened.  I now believe that, like in Slumdog Millionaire, seemingly miraculous things happen when we're clear about what we want and show up as a source of positive energy and compassion for the people around us.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The birth of a company

I started working on Wisconsin Specialty Protein in 2006.  Here we are in 2009 and I've raised $14 M and built the country's first LEED certified dairy manufacturing facility.  We will be starting up the plant three weeks from now and will be the only plant in the world that makes nutritional supplement grade organic cow, goat, and sheep whey proteins.  

Many, many people have asked me how I managed to start this company.  So many people that I've decided to start telling my story.  I am inspired to share this because I want everyone to know that they can create exactly what they intend to create in life, with enough persistence, good will, integrity, and commitment to constantly searching for solutions to problems where both sides win.  It's companies like mine that are going to create the good jobs of the future.  It would be my greatest reward if my story inspires many of you to go out and create the companies of your dreams.

New uses for the nest

My older friends always told me that I would get used to having an empty house once all of my kids were off to College.  At first I thought they were totally nuts.  I have a house full of memories that used to be full of the cacaphony of three kids, a cat, a dog, all of their friends.  Now the kids are off to College, the pets are off to a netherworld, and instead I'm running my whey company and my daughter's non profit organization out of my house.  I didn't realize how lucky I was to have this empty house to use this way until my daughter returned from her latest trip to the Amazon and lived here for a few days.  Suddenly I had kid stuff, her non profit stuff, and whey business stuff all intermingled. Turns out I never could have incubated my whey business had my kids still been living here.  Amazing how the universe seems to give us exactly what we need when we need it, even though it's not always obvious when it happens.