What's NEXT, right NOW: 3 natural brands to be like

Elected by the industry at large… at all levels, we caught up with these NEXTY provocateurs for a snapshot of what inspires their innovations, what challenges them and what's in store. 

We selected 61 Expo West exhibiting brands on which to bestow the prestigious NEXTY nominee recognition. You voted. Now we take a closer look at these three forward-thinking companies that are disruptive—shaking things up in a healthy, sustainable way to represent the future of the natural and organic products space.

NEXTY winners will be recognized in an award ceremony held at Expo East and published in the latest NEXT Report Industry Forecast as shining examples of the kind of thought leaders that advance our natural products industry.

Elected by the industry at large… at all levels, we caught up with these provocateurs for a snapshot of what inspires their innovations, what challenges them and what's in store.

Inspired life support

Natural, Organic and Functional Foods and Beverages poll winner: Functional Formularies

Natural, Organic and Functional Foods and Beverages poll winner: Functional FormulariesFounder Robin Gentry McGee created Functional Formularies' Liquid Hope while watching her father knocking on death's door on a feeding tube due to a traumatic brain injury. After a search for an organic, whole-food enteral formula came up with zero options, McGee—a professional chef working with organic whole foods her entire career—felt perfectly equipped and empowered to concoct a more nutritious feeding tube formula. Liquid Hope was born.

This shelf-stable, real meal replacement contains 99.9 percent whole food ingredients—for an ingredient panel that reads more like your grandma's special soup. It's vegan and free from dairy, gluten, GMOs and BPA packaging. It's also diabetic friendly, with no added sugar.

McGee's ambition and tenacity kicked back into high gear during our NEXTY poll voting, during which time she hired a social media person, reached out to her connections in a major way and even got her message out through Alex Jamieson, star of Supersize Me and TV healthy cooking celebrity Andrea Beaman.

For all these efforts, Functional Formularies was rewarded with a win.

Functional Formularies Founder Robin Gentry McgeeYears in business: 6

Mission statement: To transform the face of clinical nutrition in this country offering organic whole foods nutrition to those who need it most.

What was your reaction to being nominated? I was stunned and delighted. To winning? I am honored, overwhelmed and feel a deep sense of gratitude for the vast amount of people who jumped on the hope bandwagon with me.

You've won a NEXTY, what will you do NEXT? Next we'll be rolling out our functional foods soups and Paul Pitchford's Regeneration Formula.

How (else) did you rally your resources to rock the vote for your product/brand? Additionally, every day I become aware of more and more people who rallied for me and have just randomly came across blogs and websites where perfect strangers have sent out a call to support our product and ask for votes for us. It is simply amazing.

Most challenging thing about new product innovation? Finding co-packers and commercial suppliers who will work with start-ups.

What inspires you to keep plugging along as a brand? The emails and phone calls I get daily from customers who are so grateful for Liquid Hope, sometimes the letters are so heartwarming it leaves me in tears. Oh, and a deep passion and belief in what I do.

Where was your business one year ago? Where do you hope to be in five years? We were in research and development one year ago. In five years we hope to be well established in international distribution as well as to continue to expand the Functional Formularies line.

Advice to budding natural products entrepreneurs out there for getting off the ground? Never give up. If someone tells you it can't be done, that just means you have not found the right person.

Anything to add about this whole experience? I am not sure I can relay just how amazing not only being nominated but now winning the Nexty has been. You have to understand, I created this product in my kitchen for my father simply to try to help keep him alive after he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Winning the Nexty has just added another layer to the unbelievable path and gifts that have been realized due to this tragedy. It is still hard to get my arms around...

Education as innovation

Supplements poll winner: Enzymedica

Supplements poll winner: Enzymedica A digestion innovation from Enzymedica just launched at Expo West, the Digest Gold enzyme product is now being offered with adenosine triphosphate, a.k.a. ATP. Foods broken down and assimilated efficiently release energy stored in the form of ATP, the essential energy currency in every cell of the body. The new ATPro technology is a blend of critical nutrients that provide ATP and enhance ATP production in order to improve digestion, assimilation and energy production.

What also stands out is the company's comprehensive educational platform—with extensive enzyme information that includes everything from a glossary explaining the function of each enzyme used in their products to white papers and even an online course. That's because education is the company's "primary growth engine," in the words of Kimberlea Barton, director of marketing for Enzymedica.

Years in business: Enzymedica was founded in 1998.

Mission statement: Enzymedica is dedicated to providing exceptional enzyme-focused supplements at the most therapeutic levels available in the natural foods industry and beyond. It is our commitment to provide unprecedented education and research that propels individuals on the path to vibrant health.

What was your reaction to being nominated? To winning? We were honored to receive this prestigious nomination and award for our new technology, ATPro.

How did you rally your resources to rock the vote for your product/brand? We actually came quite late to the voting table, with less than four days left until closing. We immediately rallied our Facebook followers, our amazing sales force and our staff. The response was outstanding, for which I am still in awe. We had staff members on vacation who even voted remotely, due to their excitement. Bottom line, our staff, sales force and Facebook followers are awesome and embraced the social media campaign!

What inspires you to keep plugging along as a brand? As the category leader in enzymes, we feel a very weighty responsibility to keep the category growing as a whole. Over the years, we’ve experienced that education has been our primary growth engine—education to stimulate trial.

Once individuals try a full spectrum digestive enzyme, using Enzymedica's exclusive Thera-blend technology, they feel the difference. We are very confident that consumers will soon grasp the importance of enzyme supplementation, for a variety of wellness support. So our primary efforts have been, and will continue to be, in education.

We are also inspired by our customers, who count on us to be our best, and we get such great excitement as a company when we are able to develop new groundbreaking technologies to share with the industry. Enzymes are the spark of life... innovation is the spark of Enzymedica.

Advice to budding natural products entrepreneurs out there for getting off the ground? I would advise new entrepreneurs to get a strong sense of their personal values, and then channel those values into everything that they do in business. I believe Enzymedica's success has largely been due to an unwillingness to compromise with regards to our values of clean, pure, filler-free enzyme formulas, even at great cost.

Customer love to the core

Natural Living poll winner: The Honest Kitchen

Natural Living poll winner: The Honest KitchenIt's easy to see why The Honest Kitchen lives up to its mission of creating wholesome pet food products—their own pets are their first customers. Not as easy to do, however, which is what makes their transparent ingredient sourcing so impressive.

The company's now 26 human employees and eight four-legged executives have pioneered human-grade (and human taste-tested), dehydrated food for pets that sources organic whenever possible and chooses sustainability over cost. Fair trade, cage-free and improving pet health are also part of the lexicon and DNA of The Honest Kitchen, and it's clear that pets love them for it.

Lucy Postins, founder and CEO/CMO lets us in on what keeps them purring.

Years in business: 10 1/2

Mission statement: To create healthy, wholesome pet food products that make a positive difference in pets’ lives.

What was your reaction to being nominated? To winning? We were very excited to be nominated at the show and thrilled to have won! It was exciting to mobilize our brand's fans via social media to drive the votes, and I think many of them were as pleased as we were when the final results were in. Our CFO promised to bring in his blender and make margaritas for the team if we won… so we enjoyed those last Friday and posted a photo (12-year-old blender an' all) on Facebook to connect it back to our fans!

You've won a NEXTY, what will you do NEXT? We’re just in the process of launching another new product—instant goat's milk with probiotics for cats and dogs. We're also working on some fun new treats for cats and a clicker training treat for dogs to be launched in about eight weeks' time.

How did you rally your resources to rock the vote for your product/brand? We announced our nomination via Twitter and Facebook, and some of our employees also shared it on their own Facebook pages so our friends could vote, too. We saw an initial flurry of voting when we first posted and then the excitement really built up with about two days to go when we saw we were in second place. I think that really got everyone going and helped push us into first in the final hours because we could see we were so close.

The Honest KitchenMost challenging thing about new product innovation? For me, it’s the balance between instinct—knowing in my heart that a prospective new product is the right fit for our consumers and our brand based on their values and the products attributes and function—and trying to be a bit more methodical in terms of consumer research to fine-tune something.

I love charging ahead once a new idea takes hold and going on gut, and I always try to retain that approach, remaining nimble and just going for something. But at the same time, there is so much to learn from actually speaking directly with consumers and finding out what they think, at least to fine-tune messaging on the packaging to make sure it captures everything that needs to be said, if nothing else.

What inspires you to keep plugging along as a brand? I think the constant flow of communication between ourselves and our consumers is a key driver. In many ways, we are our own customers—we’re a company of pet lovers, essentially creating products for ourselves, and so we have this natural connection with our customers because they are passionate about most of the same things we are.

Reading amazing posts on Facebook about pets enjoying their first meal in ages when they first switch to The Honest Kitchen from, say, prescription food is so inspiring to keep wanting to do more. That’s something we’ve really tried to bring to life with our new True Stories campaign, which brings that product feedback to life via social media—and ultimately will do so at the retailer level as well, with POS signage that shows our True Stories Poster Pets for other customers to ready and learn about their experiences with the products. That energy back from our consumers helps to keep a constant cycle of evolution going for the brand.

Where was your business 1 year ago? Where do you hope to be in 5 years? We had about six fewer employees a year ago and plan to add several more this year as well. We have an exciting product pipeline sketched out for the next five years, and I hope we’ll have more of a presence in natural specialty retailers.

Currently, most of our business is made up of independent pet specialty retailers, veterinarians and so on. We’re committed not to go through the big box retailers, but there are so many amazing opportunities in the natural channel.

Honest Kitchen pet loveAdvice to budding natural products entrepreneurs out there for getting off the ground? I think retaining a steadfast commitment to your initial vision, not compromising on values and straying true to your idea are key. It really takes some dedication and sheer stubbornness to turn an idea into reality. You have to be relentless and fixated on what you want to accomplish; but the heart of the idea, I think, is what usually strikes a chord with the consumer.

If you can keep the essence of it alive, that’s what people connect with and ultimately what will inspire them to tell their friends. We have been so amazingly blessed with a tremendous amount of growth through word of mouth alone (especially in the early years), and I do think that's what has set the solid foundation for our growth. If you compromise and cut corners, there's no way people are going to make that connection and share you with others!

Anything to add about this whole experience? We're thrilled to have won this award for the natural products industry and to be recognized for the work we're doing to raise the bar in pet food, for more sustainable ingredients choices, packaging and production. It's been really exciting for the whole team and added yet another layer of motivation and impetus to what we're all working for.

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