Over the next few weeks, we’ll be profiling the companies in the third cohort of Velocity Indiana’s 100-day accelerator program. Some are familiar, operated by people whose names you’ve seen on IL regularly. Some are local but have either flown under the radar or are just starting out. And others are from across the country and, yes, across the sea. First up was Soccer Sidekick from Louisville. Then CompleteSet from Cincinnati and Room in the Moon from London. Today we have Louisville entrepreneurial community “regulars,” the folks from The Recovery Station and US Chia.
Zack Pennington and Jacy Cruz of US Chia and Daniel Johnsen of The Recovery Station are mainstays in the entrepreneurial scene in the Louisville area. They’re all University of Louisville MBA alums. They’ve participated in and won local pitch competitions. They’re all on the team that organizes the bi-annual Startup Weekends in town (note: I’m also on that team).
And now they represent two of the eight companies in the third cohort at Velocity Indiana this summer.
Last week we reported that Johnsen took home second place and $500 at the Regional Pitch Competition. And it wasn’t a big surprise; the only suspense was whether he’d finish first or second. Both he and Chris Bailey of GearBreak, the winner, pitched the heck out their companies.
Johnsen could probably pitch just about anything to anyone. He’s charismatic and makes his pitches seem conversational and off-the-cuff. But this time he was pitching a really good idea, by most estimations.
Such a good idea, in fact, that he recently quit his job as product manager for the Learning House so he could work on The Recovery Station full time.
(Don’t imprint on that company name, by the way, it’ll be changing soon).
The Recovery Station won Startup Weekend Lexington last fall. It is a protein and supplement shake-dispensing kiosk for gyms and fitness facilities. Smoothie bars are money-losers at gyms largely due to staffing costs. The Recovery Station is a standalone self-serve machine. Users choose a flavor and how many grams of protein they need and the machine dispenses a well-blended, cold shake.
Currently the majority of protein shake drinkers bring their blending shaker and powder to the gym with them. When they finish their workout, the put water — usually lukewarm water — into the shaker, and shake. And shake. And shake. But no matter how hard you shake, most of the time the drink is gritty and clumpy. And lukewarm.
Even though the machine dispenses a common brand-name powder mix, it just tastes better because it is ice cold and machine blended. No more grit.
I went to the Downtown YMCA where the prototype is installed at Morris’s Deli. Three flavors are available: chocolate, vanilla and chocolate peanut butter. I’d never opt to drink a protein shake — at least not a sweet one — but I gave the chocolate a shot. And… well, do these things ever really taste great? It was smooth and chocolatey. Kind of like an uncarbonated Yoohoo. It could have stood to be a little colder, but I didn’t taste any chalkiness — a frequent complaint of powdered mix drinkers.
The are 54 million gym members in America, and Americans spend $6 billion a year on nutritional supplements. Johnsen is still working through business models. If a gym wants to buy a kiosk outright, he expects the unit will cost somewhere between $3,000 – $5,000. But there’s also the possibility the company would maintain ownership of the unit and service it for the gym.
We’ve spent a lot of virtual ink on US Chia — they’re always making news, most recently in the Wall Street Journal. US Chia produces high-quality American-grown chia seeds for both human and equine nutrition. US Chia has licensed a strain of seeds that can be grown in a variety of climates — from Arizona to Kentucky. Typically, chia seeds for sale in the U.S. are grown in Central and South America.
I caught up with Zack Pennington to get an update on the company.
Pennington shares Johnsen’s charm and charisma. They’re both genuinely nice people who do a lot to help other people in the entrepreneurial community. On Monday at Open Coffee, Kate Bringardner said, “People give money to people they like.” If that’s the only basis for fundraising, then these companies should have no problem raising funds.
(Again, I’m on the Startup Weekend team with them. If you’ve ever tried to plan a multi-day event with other people, you quickly find out the mettle of which they’re made.)
Pennington says that Velocity is helping the team pick a focus of customer segments. There are a lot of things you can do with chia. They’ve had orders for chia flour for dog treats. They’ve had orders for chia oil. Their primary market is the equine industry, but they’ve been selling small bags for human nutrition both online and in area stores.
They’ve been filling these orders, but that’s spreading their energy and resources pretty far and wide. “Do one thing really well,” says Pennington. He said his goal is to know when to say yes and when to say no. “Young companies say ‘yes’ to everything.”
So they’re focusing on the equine industry, says Pennington, because one change to a horse’s diet — like adding chia — yields results within 30-60 days. Results include improved coat, hoof, digestive and joint health. “Horse people spend a lot of time with their horses,” says Pennington, “so they notice every nuance.” Unlike humans where nutritional outcomes are hard to gauge. Maybe you’ve added chia to your morning smoothies, says Pennington, but maybe you’ve also been drinking more beer.
While they’re at Velocity, they’re going to be scaling up their marketing and developing trade show materials.
The horse industry is a $40 billion industry with 5 million people — usually affluent — participating. Pennington says its bigger than most niche/hobby industries.
(Funny story about the WSJ article, shared with permission. The author didn’t share US Chia’s website link anywhere in the article. They contacted the author to ask if a link could be added. The author told them it was “impossible.” Hm.)