The orange Gatorade cooler is a staple on the bench of nearly every professional sport. But according to Mubarak Malik, the former New York Knicks training director, there are few athletes who actually drink the cooler's offerings.
"It's a marketing ploy," Malik said. "I'd say about 80% of players just drink water, the other half just just drink hydration tablets."
About ten years ago, Malik started creating his own sports drinks at home. "Back then, I felt like we were just way behind in nutrition," he said. He started a pilot project, creating different formulations and giving them to athletes for testing. Last year, he met Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers' small forward, through a mutual business partner. He gave Kuzma a beverage to test out during the NBA finals. "We decided to become business partners soon after," he said.
This year, both Kuzma and Malik are taking that drink public, with the launch of a beverage company called Drink Barcode (the drink itself is just called Barcode). The company has six full time employees, is headquartered in Los Angeles and raised $5 million in funding (Malik said Drink Barcode isn't seeking additional funding at the moment). The drink is currently available online through Barcode's website, but Malik said it will be available at six Erewhon locations in Los Angeles on June 1.
Barcode consists largely of a combination of coconut water, regular water, and three key ingredients: vitamin D, magnesium, and adaptogens, which are plant and mushroom extracts. It's a bit of a departure from traditional sports drinks, but Malik is betting that athletes, professional or otherwise are looking for something different.
Traditionally, sports drinks either help provide a quick burst of energy during a workout, like a traditional Gatorade, or are used to help aid recovery, like Gatorade's G Series Recover. Depending on what niche the drink wants to occupy, it might lean more heavily into one camp or the other. The in-game options might provide sugar and carbohydrates. The post-game option might combine carbohydrates with protein to aid recovery.
A newer generation of drinks, like Barcode, is looking to do things differently. Barcode, Malik said, is supposed to be used during games, before games, or by non-athletes who aren't working out. Carbohydrates, sugars, and proteins aren't the focus – Barcode contains just 2 grams of sugar, 6 grams of carbohydrates and no protein. Malik explains the protein's absence: "The recovery inducing properties come from the adaptogens and vitamin D."
The concept that adaptogens and vitamins might be the next frontier in performance drinks, though not definitively proven, is spawning a new cadre of drinks.
There's Gatorade's Bolt24, which advertises high levels of vitamins A and C, or BodyArmor Lyte, which has no added sugar. These are "functional beverages," intended to be light on carbs, calories and sugar, and, in theory, made for drinking during exercise or during the day, just as Barcode is.
Traditional Gatorade still commands 72% of the sports drink market share, but "functional beverage industry"—performance-oriented drinks that include nutrients —is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8% after 2021. The largest segment of the functional beverage industry, according to Research and Markets Report, is the health and wellness sector.
Barcode leans especially hard into the wellness aspect of its formula. Barcode's "adaptogen-rich" descriptor refers to the presence of mushroom and plant extract that have been studied in herbal medicine circles, but are relatively new to sports performance drinks. The watermelon version of the drink contains a cordyceps fungus extract. The lemon lime flavor contains extract from a plant called rhodiola rosea, Malik said.
There are a handful of scientific studies on the efficacy of mushroom extracts, particularly for cordyceps. Some do suggest anti-inflammatory properties and immune boosting potential. As for rhodiola rosea, the European Medicines Agency does note that it "can be used for the temporary relief of symptoms of stress, such as fatigue or sense of weakness."
Still, this research is relatively anecdotal. Guillermo Escalante, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, San Bernardino cautions that research into adaptogens is in its early stages. "I would say it's way too early to completely say that they don't work, but it's way too early to say that they're the next greatest thing, he said. "I think the verdict is still out."
Adaptogens aside, Barcode may be able to bridge the gap between sports drink and wellness drink because of its low sugar content. One of the most common criticisms of sports drinks is that they're more like sodas than performance beverages, and not needed by the majority of athletes, especially adolescents.
If most people have eaten about two hours before exercising, "that's going to cover you during your workout," said Escalante. Those athletes might not need a quick bit of carbohydrates or sugar to keep going.
Barcode, which aims to keep one foot in the world of elite athletics and one in the regular world, does seem to have kept sugar and calorie levels low enough to stay out of soda territory.
"Athletes are being funneled to healthier food during the season, so their palettes are being trained to have a healthier product that's not super sweet. But it also is sweet enough to feed that need of having a sugary drink that they've been relying on for years," he said.
Barcode's sweetness has been refined to reflect the increasingly picky palettes of elite athletes, an important step, because it's their reactions to the drink, and use of it that will probably dictate its success—as would on-court achievement.
Sports drinks often become household names through association with athletic achievement. In 1965, Gatorade was invented at the University of Florida. In 1966, the Florida Gators won the Orange Bowl for the first time. In 1969, the Kansas City Chiefs were the first NFL team to use Gatorade. That year they also won Super Bowl IV.
Barcode could have a similar origin story. Malik said he's tested the drink in real games, and confirms that Kuzma was drinking Barcode during last season's NBA finals.
"This product has won a championship," he said.
One of the most famed soccer teams in the world, Barcelona Football Club, has described appealing to Gen Z as "the greatest challenge in professional sport."
That's why the Spanish soccer league and home of Barcelona FC, La Liga, has partnered with GreenPark Sports, a mobile gaming platform that has also inked deals with the NBA and League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), a popular esports league.
"We need to reinvent the role of the fan," said GreenPark chief executive Ken Martin, former co-founder and chief content officer of Blitz, a marketing agency. He founded GreenPark in 2018 along with Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube, and Nick Swinmurn, founder of Zappos.
GreenPark Sports chief executive Ken Martin
GreenPark has yet to launch, but earlier this month closed a $14 million Series A investment round, following a 2019 seed round of $8.5 million.
The company aims to engage fans of professional sports teams that are struggling to appeal to a generation that has grown up on social media and mobile screens. Just over half of Gen Z'ers consider themselves sports fans, compared to nearly 65% of adults, according to a recent survey from analytics firm Morning Consult.
"With this partnership, we will get close to a gaming community that nowadays is very important not only for the league, but also for our clubs," said Oscar Mayo, head of marketing and international development at La Liga.
The product is a free mobile app that asks players to align with their favorite professional teams. Players compete alongside their fellow fans against other teams' fans in a battle to demonstrate who is the most passionate fanbase.
For example, if the Lakers play the Pistons in two days, Lakers fans and Pistons fans will compete during that timespan in a series of mini-games like trivia, obstacle courses or rhythm-based challenges. For the actual game, they'll make predictions about what will happen, such as which player will grab the most rebounds, or score the game's first bucket.
"Gamers want to be the hero; they want to slay the dragon," Martin continued. "As a fan, you don't necessarily get that. So we said, what if we made the fans compete against each other?"
Built with the Unity gaming engine, players enter a theme park-like world containing different professional league hubs. Martin said GreenPark already has two additional leagues that it will unveil in the coming weeks.
"We believe the majority of fans' main activity is pretty much yelling at the internet," Martin said. He wants to change that to a more active role, á la competing in a video game.
As players compete, they can rack up swag to bedeck their avatar characters.
Will Fans Actually Sign Up for GreenPark?
The GreenPark app has so far only been tested among a cohort of several hundred esports fans. In January 2021 it will open up to a broader, early-access beta period, which currently has about 1,000 fans on the waiting list. That's a far cry from revolutionizing the fandom of an entire generation, but that's where the league partnerships will come in – or so GreenPark and its investors hope.
Courtney Reum, partner at L.A.-based VC firm M13, invested on a personal basis in GreenPark's recent $14 million Series A round. His firm doesn't usually invest in pre-revenue companies, but he said "we wanted to track it" for a potential M13 investment down the line.
Reum's primary concern is whether the league partnerships can help GreenPark lure users onto the platform.
"I view it as a marketplace of sorts. They're building the supply side with the league contracts and now comes the demand generation. So how quickly can we get evangelism is still the biggest question of mine," he said. "I think it's great to get the leagues on board, but now it's like, 'what league can you get to be your go-to workhorse?'"
Reum will be watching to see whether the leagues include GreenPark in their communications, both to fans and to internal stakeholders like players, managers and owners.
Mayo said "La Liga will include some of our stakeholders in this initiative. We believe with this partnership we will get close to a gaming community that nowadays is very important not only for the league, but also for our clubs."
What's In It for the Leagues?
Although GreenPark will be free to play, like most mobile games it plans to earn revenue from a combination of advertising and in-app purchases on cosmetic items to adorn users' avatars. Martin also envisions unique sponsorship opportunities, such as a brand embedding itself as a non-player character and interacting with GreenPark users.
This sort of non-traditional fan engagement embodies what Martin sees as GreenPark's larger value proposition to their league partners: "Leagues are getting a focus in on a younger demographic," he said. "Some leagues are real hungry for something that's going to rekindle or start to de-risk the future."
"I don't think anybody I've talked to about the vision doesn't see that there's potential," said Reum. He particularly likes the founding team, given their experience. He generally likes repeat entrepreneurs, but acknowledged there's always a risk of lower motivation in such cases. But Reum said he doesn't think that will be an issue with this group.
GreenPark currently has 63 employees, with the lion's share in L.A. The team is split about evenly across engineering, creative and business operations.
The company's $14 million Series A was led by Galaxy Interactive. Its $8.5M Seed Round in late 2019 was led by SignalFire with participation from Sapphire Sport and Founders Fund, among others.
Sam Blake primarily covers media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA
The health and wellness market has boomed in recent years as more consumers become conscious of how the choices they make in everyday life impact their long-term health. The industry has done particularly well in Los Angeles, where juice bars and supplement companies pop up regularly. But how do you differentiate yourself in a market where companies promise consumers the world?
According to one CEO, the answer is data.
In this installment of dot.LA Dives In, we talk with Christoph Bertsch, founder and CEO of Vejo, producer of the "smart," eco-friendly, pod-based blender. As he was building the company, Bertsch says he pulled together a team of doctors and nutritionists to help design specialized wellness programs in a system called Vejo+. The system, he says, uses individual data to develop personalized blends based on each member's goals and individualized lab tests.
Bertsch created Vejo first for high-level athletes and Olympic competitors to help them improve their performance and play at their best. Those early users include Kevin Love (NBA), Todd Gurley (NFL), Conor Dwyer (Olympic Gold Medalist in swimming), Manchester City Football Club, as well as celebrities Zac Efron, Hugh Jackman, Kevin Costner, and Vin Diesel who use Vejo+ to prep for movies and as part of their daily routines. Some believe so much in the results, they invested in Bertsch's vision.
"When you ask Kevin (Love) today how he feels, and how long he actually wants to play, he says 'Listen, I feel like I'm 23,'" Bertsch says. "So Kevin did the program, liked it so much, we just got his bloodwork in such a different place. He came back and said 'Hey guys, I see it, it works in my system, and I want to be a part of the company.' So he became a shareholder."
But Vejo is not just for the elite athlete or actor. Bertsch says he designed the product with the aim of helping anyone achieve an optimal balance through its personalized nutrition recommendations. He laments how many people consume supplements without knowing what deficiencies they need to manage for, or worse - indulge in an unhealthy diet, expecting wonder pills to cancel out the negative effects. Bertsch emphasizes that optimal health and longevity are achievable even for the average consumer. How? Through data.
"Everything somehow has to be based on data," Bertsch says. "The data, which we have already from people who checked in and we transformed them... The knowledge which we have is huge, and just grows everyday."
With Vejo, Bertsch says he hopes to create a positive impact for his consumers, but also for the planet. Vejo's pods are 100% biodegradable. In collaboration with his European partners, Bertsch has been developing a water-soluble pod solution for the past few years.
"I never wanted to create a company which does not live in alignment with the planet," Bertsch says. "Once this is out there, and you have the device which is a reusable bottle, you have a pod which leaves no waste behind and it's single serve so there is no food waste, you have a solution which is quite cool."
Bertsch also hopes to utilize Vejo to give back to the community. The pandemic saw the company grow 5 times its size. Vejo launched the "Nourish Our Heroes" program to support frontline workers. For every blender a customer donates to those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the company will match 150% of value in its nutrient pods.
"We are just happy that we can play a little part in supporting the community. And we still do it - this topic is not over, it's ongoing. I think that is the most important thing for the DNA of Vejo. If we start something, we are very consistent."
Watch the full interview here:
Democratizing Nutrition Through Data with Vejo Founder & CEO