Dr. Mark Miller, of Kaiviti Consulting and Bella Grace’s chief innovation officer, shared some thoughts with us about the science behind optimizing cellular decision-making, enhancing influencer marketing and crossing over into the sports nutrition category. The company is one of this year’s NutraIngredients-USA Start-up Stars, which will be featured at the upcoming Sports and Active Nutrition Summit in San Diego, CA (Feb. 15-17).
What inspired the founding of the company?
Mark Miller: From the outset Bella Grace’s vision was to provide a superior consumer-centric approach to health and wellness from a product and business model perspective. The initial product focus and marketing was on “beauty from within”. To improve the diversity of our customer base, we addressed active lifestyles, exercise recovery and a younger audience.
The business element was to combine platforms of influencer marketing (but with enhancements) with direct sales in a unique blend of social selling. This structure was pioneered by our two amazing leaders, Meredith Bilbro (CEO) and Kristina Kajic (President). They clearly saw an opportunity to better connect to consumers and to offer a generous business approach to their sphere of influence.
What is so significant about the science behind the Bella Grace products?
The initial product, the Collagen Elixir, is a gel product that is aimed to disrupt the collagen market. This market to date is akin to the movie “Field of Dreams” and the adage “if you build it, they will come”. In other words, collagen products have centered on the premise that if I swallow it, then it will be digested, absorbed and delivered to targets (e.g., skin, muscle, ligaments, cartilage etc.) where it will be reassembled into new collagen.
That edict is drowning in assumptions. It totally avoids any optimization of the inherent control mechanisms that dictate matrix health. Current offerings do not focus on the activity of genes coding for the 28 forms of collagen and the activity of the enzymes that take the amino acids and place them in the correct sequence that is the specific form of collagen that the gene codes for. Nor do current approaches epigenetically control the activity of MMPs, the enzymes that degrade collagen and other matrix elements.
Without optimizing the processes of collagen production and degradation, the delivery of amino acids alone is unlikely to yield the intended benefits. Scientifically, substrates do not control the processes leading to the desired outcomes. What does dictate outcomes is cellular decision making. Better decisions (balanced and active processes) lead to better outcomes.
With three core ingredients, supported by an impressive array of clinical and preclinical studies, that optimize cellular decision-making, the Bella Grace elixir enters the fray with a disruptive product based on a superior approach that has at its foundation an intimate understanding of the mechanisms that govern matrix health.
What sets the formula apart? What are the mechanisms of action?
We chose three core ingredients: Verisol bovine collagen, AstaReal natural astaxanthin and cat’s claw.
Verisol is one of the few collagen peptide ingredients that helps optimize fibroblast activity leading to superior matrix health. It is well supported by clinical trials and preclinical mechanism of action studies. That alone is a distinguishing feature from the masses of generic collagen that pervades the marketplace.
AstaReal natural astaxanthin has been shown to restore collagen production despite background negative influences e.g., UV radiation and oxidative stress that shuts down collagen production and activates MMPs to degrade collagen. In part, this reflects its profound potency as a free radical scavenger. It also has impressive clinical support in numerous areas that were important to our connection to a diverse market. This includes improved sport performance and recovery, visual health (esports is a target for Bella Grace), cardiovascular health, cognitive benefits and immunity. As a superior mitochondrial nutrient and free radical scavenger, astaxanthin can positively impact health and wellness in a broad spectrum of consumer demographics, making it an ideal component of a foundational product.
The third core component is the Amazonian botanical cat’s claw. When I discovered the mechanism of action for this traditional medicine treasure, which is the inhibition of the central transcriptional regulator of genes that dictate chronic inflammation (NF-kB), I knew that this something that met the needs of a broad audience. Cat’s claw remains the most potent botanical inhibitor of NF-kB and is enormously well suited to applications for inflammation and joint health.
Clinical and preclinical research defined how it blocked the production of MMPs that degrade collagen and other matrix elements, whilst promoting collagen/matrix production. The primary focus of these studies was cartilage and joint health, and results indicated clear and rapid benefits.
Why did the company choose the affiliate-influencer model?
The hybrid business model was an important design feature from the beginning. Initial growth was driven by veterans of affiliate/direct sales models but who recognized that the old model of direct sales is less effective in the current world order where social media dominates. The founders were attracted to a different approach, where their influence was a key driver.
We modified the influencer model in a key manner. Normally compensation for Influencers is time restricted (usually limited to 90 days), reflecting a brief push for successful outcomes. In the Bella Grace model, compensation has no time limitations. If their influence leads to sustained sales, then they are compensated for the entire life of that influence.
The other critical aspect to augment social media impacts is the amazing videos that support the product. In the social media world from the very outset Bella Grace looked like an established multi-billion-dollar company. Out of the gate, we fought well above our weight class.
What opportunities/applications does Bella Grace see in crossing over to the sports and active nutrition category?
The sports and active nutrition category allows Bella Grace to enter a marketplace that is not concerned about wrinkles and fine lines. Younger demographics have quite different needs, but the broad benefits of the Elixir allowed us to easily expand our market.
In particular, it is ideal for gamers and esports. In the social media world this aspect of the sports and active nutrition market carries a strong influencer tone. For this group, the convenience of the product (in single serve pouches) in a gel format allows for sharing, ease of transportation and use, let alone a conversation starter helps promote the business. Additionally, from a mechanism of action viewpoint for esports and gamers, the benefits in vision health and cognitive performance resonates and offers great value.
The other demographic target is the weekend warrior, a demographic where recovery is a big deal and where the core ingredients of astaxanthin and cat’s claw offer benefits that they seek.
How has the Collagen Elixir been received since launch?
Like all start-ups, there have been some issues. Flavor profiles continue to be one that we refine as we get feedback from the field. This has been partly influenced by supply-chain issues that have given the industry grief over the last few years. Despite this, we have experienced enviable growth. After a beta-period, we fully launched in October 2022. Sales have increased month over month at a rate of 30-50%. Our social media metrics (important indicator of awareness and future growth) have grown at a much faster rate boding well for 2023.
What is next for Bella Grace?
Bella Grace is focused on the Elixir as its core, foundational product. Given the broad benefits, we will be de-emphasizing the collagen aspects to avoid perceived limitations. There will always be fine adjustments in flavor and composition based on consumer feedback. We balance the dynamics of where the science points us whilst being still tethered to consumer needs and concerns.
Beyond the elixir, we will be launching a range of topicals in 2023 that will be well suited to the influencer model. Once these are launched and cemented into our portfolio, there will be a range of supplements (introduced slowly) that address a diversity of wellness concerns. International expansion is set to occur within 18 months.
Our long-term goal is to be well recognized for value, business and product innovation. Trust, confidence and consumer-centric approaches will drive our ability to make a profound difference.
Sports & Active Nutrition Summit
The Sports & Active Nutrition Summit will be held in San Diego from Feb. 15-17. The Start-up Stars will present their companies, and industry leaders will discuss topics including the state of the market, quality and certifications, regulatory challenges, CBD, esports, personalized nutrition, and more. For more information and to register, please visit the Sports & Active Nutrition Summit-USA page.