In the continuation of our “Thinkers & Tinkers” series looking at pioneering and intrepid entrepreneurs in the sport, we sit down with Robert Kunz, the VP of Research and Development and also one of the founders of sports nutrition and supplement company First Endurance. Kunz and partner Mike Fogarty are both avid triathletes, cyclist, nordic skiers, and generally outdoorsy folks. They met at - and then left - a large supplement manufacturing company that focused on the bodybuilding and weight lifting crowd. The goal was to create a company that catered to folks like themselves - endurance athletes. So, like every individual (or individuals) we interview in this series, they decided to make a career out of what had previously just been a hobby. And in a true entrepreneurial success story, they have created a company - and products - that has taken the endurance sporting world by storm. But they also give a lot back to the community that has made them successful. They have a social networking site - team.firstendurance.com - dedicated to endurance nutrition, with extensive articles on diet that have nothing to do with the products they sell, but simply focus on how to use real food for optimal performance in racing and training. They further invest in the sports that they are passionate about by sponsoring several high profile cycling teams and cyclists as well as many individual triathletes. [Ed. In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of those triathletes, in my other job as a professional triathlete; I started working with First Endurance in early 2009 after using their products (which I purchased) for about six months.]
The First Endurance line is designed to cover all of your racing and training-specifc fueling needs. Three of the products fall under the category of racing/training nutrition (during or immediately before workout) and are part of the EFS (Electrolyte Fuel System) line. The complete line up consists of the EFS trio - a drink powder, a pre-workout bar, and the gelling-agent-free gel Liquid Shot. For post-race/training recovery, there is Ultragen, which is a high-calorie protein and carbohydrate powder. For daily health and wellness, there is a multivitamin - MultiV - and a performance supplement - Optygen, which was First Endurance's first product.The last product is a caffeine-based ergogenic - PreRace, which is like powdered version RedBull (with some additional tweaks).
As I wrote in the first piece of the series, the idea behind this article is not to try and evaluate First Endurance, though as sponsored athlete of theirs, I obviously have my own biases towards their products, but I just didn't feel confident writing an article based off only my own "N=1" experiences. If you do want to read those opinions, I post them - speaking as a First Endurance sponsored athlete - on the Slowtwitch Forums, where I try to do all of my personal evangelizing. I think the story of First Endurance - a company for endurance athletes by endurance athletes - is an interesting read all on its own. After reading this, I hope you might be interested enough do some research on First Endurance and decide for yourself whether you think they are - or are not - worth trying.
Slowtwitch: What was the genesis of First Endurance? What made you decide to start a sports supplement/nutrition company? Did you want to start a company and this just seemed like the best area? Did you perceive a void in the products that were/are out there?
Robert Kunz: Mike Fogarty and I started First Endurance in 2002 because endurance athletes didn't have access to products that met their unique needs and requirements. We were endurance athletes (and still are) working in the supplement industry and saw that the endurance products lacked innovation and advanced nutrient technologies. Mike and I were using bodybuilding supplements even though they were not designed for endurance, because they were the best option at the time. There was a need that was being ignored. After a careful review of the endurance products, we took the position of launching the highest quality, most effective and innovative endurance supplements.
Competitive athletes want the best possible product available. We knew we could integrate our passion for racing and knowledge of sports nutrition to provide endurance athletes with the best endurance nutrition available. We've never worried about introducing technologically advanced products that were more expensive than other products. Innovation, research and quality trumped price points. Our only objective was, and still is, to offer safe and legal, scientifically validated sports nutrition that is developed specifically to maximize the performance of endurance athletes.
Slowtwitch: What were the first products you offered?
Robert Kunz: The introduction of our first product Optygen was significant because we launched a product that was twice as expensive as anything else using ingredients that were not readily recognized. It was a calculated risk to introduce Optygen before anything else because it created an entirely new endurance nutrition category. At the time, there were during-exercise drinks, bars, gels and recovery products but nothing that would significantly improve endurance and performance. We also backed it up with two different double-blind, placebo controlled clinical studies that used elite endurance athletes (not untrained athletes or mice) to validate its effectiveness. In addition, we offered a 100% performance guarantee. No other endurance companies were going to these lengths. It was important to us to take these extra steps because we weren't just launching a product because we thought there was a market for it. We were introducing something to our friends- people we trained with on a daily basis and we weren't about to put our names behind something that wasn't exceptional.
Slowtwitch: You are both a scientist and an athlete. Talk about the role you play(ed) in the development and testing of products?
Robert Kunz: Because I am both a scientist and a competitive triathlete/cyclist/runner, I have a unique perspective. As an endurance athlete who’s been racing for twenty-five years, I know we sweat profusely, burn a ton of calories and put our bodies under tremendous stress all the time. We walk a fine line between gaining fitness and getting sick. At one time or another I’ve also tried most of the other endurance products while training and racing so I know how they perform (not just how they taste in a lab). This hands-on testing gives me an in-depth understanding of the endurance supplement market and it’s history.
And, as a scientist who’s been in the supplement industry for over fifteen years, I know we endurance athletes have unique nutritional requirements that are next to impossible to meet without supplementing our regular diets. I understand what makes a good endurance product or product line and what falls short. Because I’ve been working in research and development in the supplement industry, I have a lot of valuable contacts and am privy to new ingredient research and technology as soon as it becomes available.
Slowtwitch: Tell us about how a product goes from concept to product.
Robert Kunz: At First Endurance, our approach is different. Concepts and ideas can come from anywhere. Sponsored athletes usually play a key role in the direction and development of each product. We solicit constant feedback from our athletes and use this feedback to determine what products should and should not be in the First Endurance line up and also which First Endurance products can be improved. These ideas and concepts then go to our endurance research board who take the information and do a literature review looking for evidence to support the concept and its potential effectiveness. We then create a product prototype and distribute it back to our professional athletes for detailed feedback. Our athletes will test the prototype during training and intensive racing (including Ironmans, ultras and cycling events like the Tour de France). Based on the feedback we will adjust the prototype and send a revised version back to our athletes. This process can go back and forth numerous times until the product is perfect. In the case of the EFS liquid shot, this took two full years. Once the professional athletes have given their seal of approval we open up the feedback to our online customers via our newsletter, then we launch.
PreRace, for example, is the result of a request from our athletes that wanted something that would give them a potent mental and cardiac jump-start before races. Our research & development team evaluated all the possible ingredients that would target the objective, then developed prototypes for the athletes to try. The athletes tested the prototypes in their respective workouts and races for a period of time and then filled out a detailed survey for us. The formula received excellent reviews in terms of performance but fell short on a few of the attributes. We took this feedback and went back to work. Various versions were produced and tested until we had a formula that met the objectives. After that, we had a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical study done on PreRace to determine it's effectiveness on cycling endurance. The results were staggering: Over a 40k time-trial: times were 3'17" faster than with the placebo, watts increased by 15, lactate threshold increased and there was no significant change in heart rate or rate of perceived exertion. Complete details on the study are available on our web site.
Slowtwitch: Besides you, who else makes up FE?
Robert Kunz: Mike Fogarty and I are the co-founders and still oversee all aspects of First Endurance. Mike Fogarty is the VP of Sales and Marketing and I am the VP of Research and Development. First Endurance owns all of its intellectual property and has established operational partnerships that allow us to keep complete control over all key aspects of product development and distribution. This infrastructure design allows us the flexibility to move quickly and efficiently and stay in direct contact with our costumers. We feel strongly that this control and communication with the end consumer gives us a distinct competitive advantage.
Slowtwitch: Do you have plans for any new products in the future? Where do you see First Endurance, as a company, going in the future? Do you see your role growing/changing with regards to that?
Robert Kunz: The First Endurance product line was designed from the beginning to work as a complete endurance system. Each product has been designed to compliment the others. With the addition of the EFS Liquid Shot, First Endurance now offers everything an endurance athlete needs to maximize endurance and performance. We do not want to convolute this concise yet effective product line but we will continue to infuse the products with innovative and scientifically validated ingredients and technologies. Our goal as a company is to engineer the most effective product in each endurance category. We will do this by constantly improving the products we have.
My role with the company will not waiver. I will be fully focused on developing the most advanced endurance supplements in the world. As a company First Endurance will not change in the future. Today we take a very active role in understanding all aspects of endurance nutrition. We do this through literature reviews, testing, and research, much of which is transparent on our blog and Team First Endurance sites.
Slowtwitch: What can we expect to see from First Endurance in 2010?
Robert Kunz: First Endurance recently introduced two new product upgrades. In January, we introduced an upgraded version of OptygenHP. When we introduced OptygenHP, a few years ago, we used the most potent rhodiola that was available at the time. Since then, a higher potency rhodiola (2x stronger than the previous extract) has been developed so we updated the original OptygenHP formula with the new, stronger version.
We’ve just finished completely redesigning all of the EFS drink mixes. We spent more than a year on this upgrade. The new and improved formulas utilize the latest research and technology on amino acids, electrolytes and now contain malic acid. In addition, all of the flavors have also been improved significantly.
There are also a number of other new innovative projects that we’re currently working on that are really exciting. We’ll have more information on them in a few months.
For more on First Endurance, check out their main site at FirstEndurance.com, their nutrition research and discussion site at Team.FirstEndurance.com, and their blog at Blog.FirstEndurance.com.