Umasudhan C.P. has been CEO of Valensa since 2015 and late last year added chief operating officer to his list of titles. He had been a vice president of the business since Indian parent company E.I.D. Parry had purchased the business in 2009.
Valensa had been founded in the late 1990s by Floridian Fred Gregg who has since retired. Gregg built a business as one of the pioneers in the saw palmetto trade, building relationships with suppliers and leading the way on early extraction standards. Saw palmetto extracts are most frequently mentioned in connection with benefits in managing BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia), or an enlarged prostate gland, a condition affecting many older men.
Choice of agriculture as career path
Umasudhan has almost as long a history in the supplement ingredients space. He was born in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and completed his first degree at the local agricultural university.
“This really has been my entire life,” Umasudhan told NutraIngredients-USA. “I was educated as an agricultural engineer. I don’t think I would ever be able to work in another industry.”
His first job offer after college was with a biotech startup focused on microalgae production. That eventually morphed into Parry Nutraceuticals, under the banner of E.I.D. Parry, which is part of the Muragappa Group, one of India’s leading industrial conglomerates.
Parry’s first focus was on spirulina production. Umasudhan helped set up the cultivation facility in southern Tamil Nadu which is still in production.
The open pond facility is located in the southeastern part of the state near the town of Kadiapatti. Like many other algae facilities, it is in an area of abundant sunshine, adequate groundwater but limited rainfall. Too much rain can cause the chemistry of the ponds to fluctuate and play havoc with the production process.
Umasudhan said the business broke new ground in the algae field.
“In 2004 we took the product global with the new USP NOP certification. We were the first in spirulina field with a USP certification. We had demonstrated that our spirulina cultivation was stable and consistent. With algae cultivation, there are always quality concerns,” he said.
After E.I.D. Parry bought out the business in 2007, the company stated to delve into the cultivation of Haematococcus pluvialis, the algae species that is the primary source of natural astaxanthin.
“In 2008 astaxanthin was a very new ingredient,” Umasudhan said.
Partnership on astaxanthin and birth of formulation strategy
Around that time Valensa approached Parry to propose a joint venture on astaxanthin. That discussion culminated in a Parry taking an ownership position in Valensa and one of the first large scale launches in the field under the Dr Mercola brand. That launch benefited greatly from the appearance of Dr Mercola himself on the Dr Oz Show, which at the time had great influence within the industry. The demand for astaxanthin boomed.
How best to take advantage of that boom was the question. Valensa at the time was under the leadership of CEO Rudi Moerck, who led the company down a path of offering finished formulations to customers.
Umasudhan said the company had some initial success along that line, but came to see the strategy’s limitations, too.
“We had a successful product combining astaxanthin with krill oil and hyaluronic acid. It was perfect timing. We did some good business with it for five years and then it started to slow down,” he said.
“The problem we found with a formulation approach is that you end up competing with your own customers. They want the science based ingredients and the quality, but they want to use their own R&D labs,” he said.
“Of the ten formulations we came up with only one was really working out,” he said.
Refocusing on ‘platforms’
After Parry took full control of the business Umasudhan said it was time to refocus the company on what it did best, that being offering the highest quality ingredients in the sectors it plays in. He calls this a ‘platform’ strategy, meaning the company is focused on working with customers on formulas based on astaxanthin, saw palmetto, spirulina and chlorella platforms.
That effort included leading a focus on saw palmetto quality to highlight issues within the market. The saw palmetto trade is rife with low quality ingredients made from unripe berries or that are mere dosages of whole berry powders which have only a fraction of the required bioactives. Valensa’s USPlus Saw Palmetto is an oil extract of the berries that conforms to what has been used in research, Umasudhan said.
In addition, the company has anticipated the continued demand for astaxanthin. The boom days of the market are over, but consistent future demand is anticipated, so Parry/Valensa responded by adding an algae facility in northern Chile.
“We are also looking at omega-3s from algae,” Umasudhan said.
Building up the research
Umasudhan said dialing back on the formulation work also allows the company to build its knowledge base, which at the end of the day is what underpins the entire industry.
“The industry builds credibility only by doing more research with strong placebo controlled clinical trials. We are doing a clinical trial with our saw palmetto on BPH,” he said.
“We are also doing a trial with our joint product that contains astaxanthin. We just completed two preclinical trials in an animal model, so we are doing the mechanistic work that leads into clinical trials. This is all to support clear, strong, legally approved claims that our customers can use to market their products,” he said.