Hilo Nutrition Reinvents Protein Powder in Gummy Form

Andy Sauer has been in the business for food and consumer goods for a decade and sports nutrition for another five years. So, co-founding Hilo Nutrition (pronounced hee-low) is a natural extension of things he’s done before. Sort of.

Sauer’s extensive industry experience before Hilo did not include making gummies.

“My first gummy batch was stirred up, literally, in a saucepan on the stove, with Eric,” Sauer said. “Eric” is Eric Torgerson, a former research and development expert in sports nutrition categories, and co-founder and COO of Hilo.

“Eric is always inventing,” Sauer said. “Together, we thought we could take sports nutrition, a category that is dominated by powder, and deliver core benefits is some other form.”

They made and remade gummy batches in ice cube trays. It took hundreds of iterations.

“We worked through the technical challenges—it’s amazing how many discoveries start in the kitchen,” Sauer said. “We pitched our gummies to the Vitamin Shop, and they took on seven different items (SKUs) before we even launched.”

Sports Nutrition: A $7B opportunity in the U.S.

Protein powders take up about 40 percent of the sports nutrition market; the rest is where the white space lies.

Hilo Nutrition is structuring their brand around understanding its customers—from top tier athletes to regular folks who are working on developing good habits around health and nutrition.

“So many people more people are realizing that health is important,” Sauer said. “The business traveler isn’t going to steak dinners—they are going to Orange Theory.”

As Hilo develops the brand, Sauer says they think like their customers think. “What are the things that a modern athlete is going to run into day to day?” Sauer said. “People who exercise realize at points they need more energy to get through their workout, or they are sore afterward, or more sleep would make them feel better. We serve them solutions in an easy form.”

There’s a subtle benefit to the Hilo’s gummies. “Customization is a big thing for people who buy our brand,” Sauer said. “There are multiple gummies to a serving. People can easily vary that, based on what they feel they need at the time.”

Market Validation, Expanding Production, Building the Team

When Hilo Nutrition launched, the assumption was that the consumer would resemble the current market—young males—but a more diverse consumer quickly emerged.

“The persona that we had identified as our secondary target consumer is actually our primary,” Sauer said. “We circled the wagons. We saw our strengths but more importantly our flaws and weaknesses. We have doubled back and are reimaging our brand to meet both female and male expectations.”

Hilo is now a team of five, two of whom are women. “Our build-out has been deliberate,” Sauer said. “Diversity helps in many ways.” The company is seeking to add resources to ramp up business and product development.

E-commerce is the Heartbeat of Sales

“The beauty of selling direct to consumer is that we are selling one-to-one. You can learn a lot about your customer.” Sauer said. “As a result, our first hire was an e-commerce expert. He has helped build a digital infrastructure that keeps us in touch with our consumer and helps us learn about them and from them continually.”

And was it a good idea to stir up those gummies on the stove?

“We are incredibly happy,” Sauer said. “This has been the best decision of my life. Every day is hard, but there are no missing pieces. There is no ambiguity. When you wake up, everything you do has a direct impact on the outcome. It’s on our shoulders. There is no hiding behind corporate infrastructure. It is you against you. How hard can you push? How do you get that extra drive?”