The brand is the work of cofounders Prateek Agarwal and Shreya Celly. Agarwal said a worryingly high cholesterol reading during a routine checkup had him thinking about his longterm cardiovascular health, as he had a family history of heart disease. His doctor recommended he take a fish oil supplement as a long term prophylactic measure.
Finding an omega-3 for vegetarians
Trouble was, Agarwal, who grew up in India in a family of practicing Hindus, couldn’t fit fish oil into his vegetarian lifestyle. And in any case after years of eating that way the smell of the product was a nonstarter.
“My entire extended family, none of us ate any meat. Not even any eggs,” he said.
Celly, who grew up in the United States, said she’s been a vegetarian since about the 7th grade. When fish was recommended to her by a doctor she said she, too, struggled with the fishy aftertaste of the product.
Agarwal, who has a background in marketing and sustainability, teamed with Celly, who has a biomedical sciences background, to look for an alternative. For the foundation of their brand, Calgee, the pair settled on what is perhaps the longest-established ingredient in the space, Life’s Omega from DSM (previously known as life’s DHA plus EPA).
This ingredient came from the Martek patented process that DSM acquired in 2010 in a deal valued at more than $1 billion. Martek had developed a way to cultivate propriety strains of Schizochytrium algae in fermentation-style system.
At the time of the acquisition, Martek dominated the infant nutrition markets with a high DHA ingredient that could easily be incorporated into bottle feeding formulas. Adequate DHA is helpful in proper infant brain development.
The algae platform was also developed to express EPA as well as DHA. The mature ingredient, which is used in the Calgee product, delivers 300 mg of DHA and 150 mg of EPA in a 1 gram serving of algal oil.
Agarwal said he did a lot of research into what consumers had to say about existing omega-3 supplements.
“While I was researching the market I spent a lot of time reading one and two star reviews on Amazon. Combined with my experiences trying to take fish oil supplements I knew our product had to be odorless with no fishy aftertaste to meet consumer expectations,” he said.
One of the issues that has held back the uptake of algal ingredients generally over the years has been the relatively high cost. Agarwal and Celly believe their direct to consumer, low overhead path to market will help them deliver a product at a reasonable price point.
Calgee sells its omega-3s for about $30 for a monthly supply, with a slight discount for subscription purposes. That’s more than twice what some mid quality fish oil supplements sell for on Amazon that also deliver about 500 mg of EPA and DHA per serving.
But Agarwal and Celly are betting on the vegetarian positioning will boost the brand. There’s reason to believe there is a significant market for such products.
According to recent data from polling Gallup, about 5% of Americans, or about 6.5 million people, say they are vegetarians. And the good news for companies pushing vegetarian products like Calgee is that future trends are good. According to the Gallup data, 8% of 18- to 34-year-olds and 7% of 35- to 54-year-olds call themselves vegetarians.
While the data is inconsistent, comparing those results with other, slightly older surveys seems to indicate vegetarianism and veganism is rising in the US.
Sustainability commitment matches consumer trends
Agarwal also said the company has a strong commitment to sustainability. One aspect of course is the use of an algal ingredient made at a fixed location with well quantified inputs and waste outflows. That contrasts to the harvest of fish oil, with all of its ocean health and carbon footprint concerns. But he also stressed that the brand is also committed to using sustainable packaging to the extent possible. And he said the company also intends to pursue future B Corp certification and work toward being carbon neutral.
Agarwal said all of that will connect with developing consumer trends, and there is some data that supports that point of view. According to WARC (World Advertising Research Council), recent survey results indicate: “Being locked down has in some ways made [consumers] even more conscious of issues like air quality and food waste; brands need to make more of their green credentials – if they have them.”