A mechanical engineer with a keen interest in semi-conductors, ips All Natural co-founder Sean Olson is not your typical food entrepreneur. But don’t let his résumé fool you. With an unusual product that taps into the protein trend, Olson reckons his egg white chips may just find the sweet spot in the healthier snacks market.
And thus far, he’s had a pretty good crack at it (excuse the pun), securing listings in Amazon, Whole Foods and around 500-600 outlets primarily on the west coast following a July 2013 launch. He’s also struck a deal with leading sports nutrition distributor Europa that will give his Intelligent Protein Snacks (ips - rhymes with chips) a nationwide presence.
Egg white ticks all the boxes
Made with non-GMO corn flour, egg whites, high-oleic sunflower oil, seasoning and rice & tapioca flour using a patent-pending modified extrusion process, Olson’s gluten-free chips contain 6g of protein per serving, less than half the fat of fried potato chips and a third fewer carbs than baked chips.
But why focus on egg, given that plant-based proteins (peas, rice, beans, lentils, chickpeas) seem to be all the range now in the snacks aisle?
Lots of reasons, he tells FoodNavigator-USA, but mainly because egg white ticks all the boxes, providing a complete amino acid profile and great bioavailability, but most importantly, a clean taste and a great texture.
“Once you add a certain amount of soy or pea protein you can get those earthy or beany off notes.”
I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know anything about the food industry
But how did he go from semi-conductors to snacks?
The ‘a-ha’ moment came back in 2011 when Olson was cooking eggs for his kids, who were big fans of the crispy edges of the egg whites.
“I suddenly thought what if I could make the whole egg white crunchy? Could I make a snack? So I started looking up information about proteins on the web, and playing around with concepts, and it all started from there.”
Next, Olson - a serial entrepreneur with an MBA under his belt and a lot of experience dealing with start-ups and new technology (albeit not in the food industry) - started making some calls.
His first - and most important - was to Paul Sheppard, a former colleague from his days at Boston Consulting Group who had since gone on to become general manager at POM Wonderful (and co-founded Los Angeles-based ips All Natural with Olson).
“I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know anything about the food industry,” says Olson. “So I called up Paul, who knew a lot about selling high end food & beverage products.”
Initially, we just wanted to get the brand out there and really understand who our customers were
Their initial strategy for ips All Natural, which has raised two rounds of capital from high net worth individuals, was to start small and target a group of early adopters that would spread the word, he says.
“Initially, we just wanted to get the brand out there and really understand who our customers were. Now that we’ve done that, we’ve changed the formulation and the packaging to really emphasize the protein, as that’s what people were buying into.
"Our new packaging should be out in a couple of months. It's got cleaner lines and a more contemporary feel and we’ve gotten a great response from the consumer panels we’ve shown it to."
We had the greatest traction in the sports nutrition space
So who is the target consumer?
“To start with we were thinking about busy professionals, people interested in high quality protein, and Moms looking for healthier snacks for their kids,” says Olson.
“As it has turned out, we had the greatest traction in the sports nutrition space, where the chips really sold themselves, and didn't require the sampling or support necessary in other channels."
But he’s also looked beyond traditional retail channels, and has recently secured a place on the snacks menu at Texas-based My Fit Foods , which was founded in 2006 by a personal trainer on a mission to create healthy prepared meals for his clients, and now has locations all over California, Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois and Arizona.
There’s a lot to be said for sampling something right at the point where people can buy it!
As for getting his chips in front of consumers, the key is finding the right venue, says Olson.
In-store sampling, for example, can be a challenge as people are pressed for time and don’t want to chat, but has clear advantages in that if shoppers enjoy the product, you can immediately convert that into a purchase, he notes.
“There’s a lot to be said for sampling something right at the point where people can buy it!”
Conversely, while giving out free snacks at sports events can be a better forum for engaging with target consumers, the ROI is harder to calculate (unless they are so impressed they stop by a store that happens to stock your product on the way home and buy it).
You need to recognize the things that you know and pay attention to the things you don’t
So what advice does he have for other entrepreneurs looking to break into the ultra-competitive snacks market, and how confident is he that he can win in a market in which so many innovative start-ups lose?
“You’re never as far along as you think you’ll be at any given point, and it took a lot longer than we thought to get the R&D work done to get the product right,” says Olson.
“But while there’s always risk when you start a business, we’re aligned to two very big trends: protein fortified products and healthier snacking, so we’re in a really good position.
“As for advice, you need to recognize the things you know and pay attention to the things you don’t know. My background is in the technical development and analysis side of things, whereas the softer creative side of things has been harder for me, so you have to take advice from people that have the skills you don’t.”