Updates from Challenge Prize Silver Winner Real Food Solutions:
Company Acquired five months after Silver Prize win
Invested winnings in marketing channels to build audience
Built partnerships and received additional mentorship to accelerate growth
Reached more people to help lessen nausea caused by medication, motion and morning sickness
Startup to acquisition: that’s the ideal path for many new businesses. For Real Food Solutions, that major milestone came just five months after winning a silver award at the 2016 Food+City Challenge Prize in February. The Boston-based company uses existing clinical research to create food-based remedies for everyday ailments, including nausea. In July they were acquired by Pink Stork Solutions, a company committed to delivering natural products to help alleviate some of the symptoms that come with pregnancy. As part of our series on startup successes, we visited with Real Food Solutions co-founder and CEO Neheet Trivedi about this exciting milestone and the journey that led to it.
Food+City: What has Real Food Solutions been up to since the 2016 Prize?
Neheet Trivedi: We got acquired! Pink Stork Solutions has a very interesting story. The founder, Amy Upchurch, has four kids, and during her first three pregnancies she experienced terrible nausea and morning sickness. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, she started researching the role of gut microbiota and certain types of natural solutions. They worked really well for her, so she decided to share those products with other people, and that's how the company was born. They and their customers have been looking for food solutions, and we provide a clinically developed food solution for nausea as a side effect of medications, from morning or motion sickness, and other causes. It was a just a great fit.
Congratulations! Tell me more about the start of your journey and the "a-ha!” moment that led you to start Real Food Solutions?
NT: The “a-ha!” moment was seeing my sister have terrible nausea from morning sickness when she was pregnant. She was reluctant to take medication and wished for a food-based solution that would help with her nausea, be easy to eat and provide nutrition. At the same time, I had a friend whose mother had persistent nausea due to medication.
How did you get started?
NT: I knew I had to partner with somebody with the skills and background to help build this. Through a mutual friend I met Dr. Rupa Mukherjee, a practicing gastroenterologist. When we met, she was very excited by the idea. She had a lot of patients to whom she was recommending food-based solutions, but there wasn't a specific solution or product that she really liked. Our idea was to make products for aspects of health, starting with nausea. We also brought in a nutritionist to help us think through new product development and other aspects of our business. My background is the "make it happen" — bring experts together, ask the right questions, find the manufacturer, find the customers. So I rely on people like Dr. Mukherjee to provide the input to create our products.
Is there anything about your original idea that you had to let go of as the business evolved?
NT: We started doing tests with our nutrition bar on cruise ships for people who get nausea from motion sickness. Demand was so high that we focused more of our marketing and sales efforts on that space and a little less on other forms of nausea. We haven't let pregnant women go by any means, and they're still a focus of the business. We just found our initial market through motion sickness. Business is constantly evolving. You focus on different markets based on the skills and tools that you have. One of our biggest questions was, “Without a lot of capital, how can we scale as quickly as possible?” By taking advantage of the lowest hanging fruit and building from there.
What's the most important lesson you've learned in starting Real Food Solutions?
NT: Building a company from scratch is tough. You're competing against incumbents and new companies, you're competing for mind space, for Internet space. You have to be thoughtful about how you're differentiating, especially with a consumer product. We have an advantage in that people are looking for our products: They’re looking for morning sickness relief, motion sickness relief, nausea relief, so they often find us. But you have to be really thoughtful about how you make sure you're doing everything you can to make it easy for them to find you — because we have a solution that we know will help them.
What was your experience in the 2016 Food+City Challenge Prize?
NT: I enjoyed it a lot. I'm still in touch with two of the judges who have been like mentors and advisors. They've provided a lot of great insight and feedback. I also made connections in the Austin food and startup community. During the competition itself I met so many people in the food space that I’m still in touch with. More than anything it was good to get confirmation that we were on the right track. All in all I found it to be a great competition, and of course I feel fortunate that we were one of the winners.
What did being a Prize winner do for you?
NT: The winnings went right into sales and marketing and some working capital. Having the cash allowed us to invest in spreading the word and letting more people know about the product. The challenge of any startup is just letting people know that you're out there.
What was the best advice you received?
NT: I got a lot of feedback on my pitch, not just for the competition, but for our investor deck. Afterward, I had several helpful conversations about building and scaling the company. From specific feedback about our financial model to a growth margin target to merchandising strategy, it was great to get input that was so tangibly helpful and relevant.
What advice do you have for tomorrow’s startups?
NT: I would say, if you have an idea or food-related startup, absolutely apply. The most important thing is to have tested your product or service and have customer feedback. Show the judges your wins, even if it’s only available in one store. Explain why people like your product and how they're coming back for more. Customer feedback is really critical.
What’s next for you?
NT: I've always been passionate about sustainability, broadly speaking, and that has connections to energy, the environment, food, agriculture, health and nutrition — it's been a theme in my life. The goal with Real Food Solutions was to build a successful business, and there are many ways to do that. You can raise outside funds or remain private and grow a lifestyle-type business. We felt that the timing was right for us to partner with another company that had a great brand and way to reach more customers than we could alone, and we're excited to join their team. I'm still very much involved in Pink Stork and will be continue to stay involved as an advisor and more. As for my next gig, I've got the bug — there are a lot of interesting and exciting things happening in the food space and beyond.
Are you the next Food+City Challenge Prize winner? Apply for the 2017 Challenge Prize today!