It all began four years ago when elite athlete coaches Damien Kennedy and Greg Duggan bought an ice cream maker on eBay. Since then the London-based duo have developed and launched WheyHey, a sugar-free, high-protein ice cream.
WheyHey's timing was perfect as it coincided with a huge surge in demand from athletes and lifestyle consumers for protein hits in drink and snack form. Sir Richard Branson was an early convert. He awarded the product Virgin Pioneer status which opened doors for the young company. It's also now in fridges of premier league footballers, boy band One Direction and X Factor contestants.
Last year WheyHey sold more than a million pots. This year it is expected to sell four million pots in Europe and double that in 2017. The company is already selling into the Middle East and Australia will come on stream towards the end of this year.
WheyHey's Irish-born founders met while studying sports science at Brunel University in the UK. A master's in human performance and physiology followed and Kennedy, a former super league basketball player in Ireland, got a job coaching with the Great Britain Institute for Basketball while Duggan began working with elite football and rugby players.
The germ of the idea for WheyHey came when Kennedy was visiting his family in Cork. “My Mum was eating frozen yogurt because she thought it was good for her as it was low-calorie and low-fat,” he says. “What she hadn’t realised was that it was full of sugar. That really annoyed me as I was fed up with big companies pushing the message that a food is healthy when it’s not.”
On returning to the UK, Kennedy and Duggan put their heads together. “We identified a gap for a healthy treat that ticked all the nutritional boxes, tasted good and had none of the bad stuff. For us that meant sugar-free, gluten-free, diabetic friendly and low in fat and calories. A 150ml serving of a good quality high street ice cream would have about 5g of protein, up to 30g of sugar and about 300 calories. WheyHey has 20g of protein, no sugar and 154 calories,” Duggan says.
Having settled on developing a protein ice cream the partners spent £300 (€350) on a second-hand ice cream maker and began to experiment in Duggan’s kitchen. “It became a 24-hour obsession,” he says. “We would work all day, get home and start making batches of ice cream and then get up at four in the morning to taste it and pack it. We sold what we’d made to local gyms.”
In 2012 the partners left their full-time jobs, sold everything they could do without and put all the money into developing WheyHey. “With our backgrounds, getting the nutritional profile together was not a problem,” Kennedy says. “The dairy and food department at UCC helped with the scaling up process and it took around six months to reach the point where we were ready to go into commercial production.”
Finding a manufacturer capable of making the product (which requires a different process from normal ice cream making) commercially proved harder than expected. "We literally Googled ice cream makers and rang them up," says Kennedy. "Basically they weren't interested and told us nobody would buy it. The exception was Silver Pail in Fermoy, Co Cork. They listened and have since become our manufacturer."
WheyHey has 23 staff and offices in the UK, Frankfurt, Kuwait and Finland. Distributors are in place in Germany, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Australia and in the Gulf Cooperation Council area. UK cinema chain Odeon has recently begun to list the product across its sites and the company is in talks with two large retailers in the US.
WheyHey is available in Ireland in 50 SuperValu and Centra outlets. The product comes in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and banoffee flavours at €2 for a 150ml tub.
“We have the first mover advantage with WheyHey and fully intend making the most of it,” Duggan says. “The product has broad millennial consumer appeal and really strong proof of concept in multiple channels and regions in a fast-growing sector. Nutrition and functional food spend is growing (up globally by 12.7 per cent in 2014) and the sector is worth around $300 billion (€271 billion) annually.”
Self-funding the company’s development has been tough but imperative Kennedy says. “We looked at the lead times involved in applying for funding and they were off the scale if you’re trying to be quick and innovative,” he says.
"If we underestimated anything it was just how much work is involved in getting a business off the ground even when you're flat out all the time. You get a totally unrealistic view of what it's like from programmes like The Apprentice," Kennedy adds.
“One of the hardest aspects is managing your own emotions during the process. You go from incredible highs to incredible lows very quickly. It’s a challenge to stay on an even keel.”
WheyHey has been the recipient of a number of awards that have helped raise its profile.
It recently scooped the Great Britain Start-Up of the Year (previous winners were Innocent drinks and Green & Blacks chocolate) and it has also been recognised as a first Irish Future Leader by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
"The Irish International Business Association has been fantastic in getting us introduced to everyone who might be of interest such as the CEO of Unilever" Kennedy says.
WheyHey also beat off stiff international competition to win a place on the highly rated California-based Thrive accelerator programme for emerging food and agri-businesses. Asked about WheyHey's ambitions for the future Kennedy says, "We want to be the Red Bull of the freezer aisle."