Take one amateur boxer with a sales and marketing background, add the need for a protein and energy drink, and you get WheyUp, a drink that combines 20 grams of whey protein in a non-carbonated, sugar-free energy drink.
Two years ago, Phoenix-based WheyUp founder and President Erik Rothchild was a 40 year-old guy who liked to stay in shape by working out and lifting weights. Staying on top of nutrition news in health magazines, Rothchild noticed a push for weightlifters to consume whey protein to help build and repair muscles that have been torn down, he said. “20 grams of whey protein before you work out,” he read repeatedly.
So Rothchild, who was in the habit of waking up at 5 a.m. to box and lift weights and wanted to consume protein without eating, started to make his own drink. In his kitchen, Rothchild would add a sugar-free energy drink to a blender for a liquid base, throw in strawberries to improve the taste and blend in a scoop of whey protein powder.
“I would blend my own protein combination energy drink, and I would drink it and go to the gym and have a great workout,” he says.
After doing this for six months and searching supplement stores for a drink that combined protein, energy and B vitamins, Rothchild decided to create one based on his homemade idea. “The name WheyUp just popped right into my head,” he says. “…I figured if someone knew what whey protein was, and they saw it in the name of a product, they would identify it as a protein drink.”
After establishing WheyUp’s name as a trademark, Rothchild approached a local energy drink company to develop the product. The company liked the product, but didn’t have time to develop it. Wanting to get an opinion on the drink from the supplement side, Rothchild pitched the idea to a protein powder manufacturer. His response was the same.
Without any beverage industry experience, Rothchild resolved to develop WheyUp himself. The inventor hired a formulation company to create a caffeinated, sugar-free drink with 20 grams of protein, taurine and B vitamins. He then took WheyUp samples to people working out at the gym to determine the flavor.
“Fortunately in Phoenix, it’s a pretty fit city because it’s pretty much sun year-round, and it’s the fifth-largest city in the country, so it’s a good test market for a fitness product,” Rothchild says.
Rothchild approached a Phoenix gym chain with 55 locations with only a sample in a glass bottle and a diagram of what he thought WheyUp would look like. The buyer loved the concept and signed WheyUp to a 60-day exclusive agreement in April 2007. Less than a year after Rothchild first thought of the product in July 2006, he had WheyUp on shelves.
Originally available in Wild Berry and Tropical Citrus flavors, WheyUp released a Grape Punch flavor in August. The new flavor combines grape with a hint of watermelon flavor, Rothchild says.
WheyUp’s strongest markets are currently Arizona and Southern California, but it can be found in select retailers nationwide and also is available internationally in Canada and Australia. The drinks can be purchased in locations such as gyms, supplement stores and grocery chains, and the company’s sales are driven by sales managers in California and Arizona.
Sports, energy or dairy
WheyUp’s unique formula combines fitness, energy and dairy ingredients making it a hybrid product and appealing to consumers for different reasons.
“In all honesty, we’re really a sports drink, but I call it a fitness drink because sports drink you think of Gatorade, Powerade and Vitaminwater, and those are all $1 [plus] a bottle drinks,” Rothchild says. “With WheyUp, because it has protein in it, and protein is expensive, it’s $3 a bottle.”
Rothchild also didn’t want to place WheyUp in the energy drink category because of the product’s protein formula. “We just happen to be a drink that has protein and energy,” he says. “Fortunately, energy has become its own category, so when I say the word, ‘energy,’ people identify with what that is.”
The founder, in turn, decided to label the product as a “revolutionary sports drink” or “fitness drink,” depending on the retail location he is trying to sell the product to.
To create WheyUp’s fitness side, the formula uses whey protein isolate, which comes from cow’s milk. “I don’t promote it as a dairy product, but technically, it’s a dairy product,” Rothchild says. “It doesn’t look like a dairy product.”
The inventor decided to use whey protein because it is a quick-absorbing protein.
“When you work out, you want the protein to be forced into your muscles as quickly as possible, and that’s why we use an isolate,” Rothchild says.
Because of WheyUp’s innovative use of whey protein, the product was given the “Best Newcomer Brand or Business” award by the Global Dairy Congress this year. Rothchild presented at the congress’s conference in March in Athens, Greece.
In addition to the whey protein, WheyUp offers energy ingredients such as vitamins B3, B6, B5 and B12 and taurine. The drink also is sweetened with Splenda to provide a sugar-free, 90 calorie, 1-gram-of-carbohydrate formula per 16-ounce bottle.
Unique targets
WheyUp’s sales skew evenly among men and women in ages ranging from teenagers and up, but for different reasons.
“It’s a unique drink where you can actually gain muscle by drinking it or lose weight, depending on how you use it,” Rothchild says. “To put on lean muscle, you would drink it as a pre-workout or during-your-workout drink. If you wanted to lose weight or for weight control, you can use it as a meal replacement. It’s a great breakfast.”
WheyUp’s protein and sugar-free formula also lends itself to appeal to a few other niche markets such as diabetics and gastric-bypass patients.
“I didn’t know anything about diabetes, but they love this drink because it’s a protein drink that’s sugar free,” Rothchild says. “Protein stabilizes insulin levels and obviously, when you are diabetic, you can’t have the sugar. For the whole gastric-bypass community, after they have the surgery, they drink protein. They don’t [eat] protein because it fills them up too quickly.”
Still taking cues from its sports nature, WheyUp sponsors Jeff Nygaard of the Association of Volleyball Professionals Pro Beach Volleyball Tour. WheyUp is also the official sports drink of the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League. As a sponsor, WheyUp has a presence at select Rattlers home games at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix. In addition, WheyUp is the official sports drink and title sponsor of Phoenix’s Mixed Martial Arts competition Rage in the Cage, and also sponsors Full Contact Fighters.
Moving forward, WheyUp is concentrating on growing its footprint in Arizona and Southern California and expanding from there.
“Because it’s a new brand and because it’s a protein drink, we believe that our early adopters and our core audience are those that are in the gym — male or female,” Rothchild says.