In early March, Anaheim, Calif., will host the largest natural products trade show in North America, a venue of all that is nutritious. For Victoria’s Paul Underhill, it’s a leap into the wildly competitive U.S. market for health drinks.
The expo will mark the U.S. launch of Rumble, a nutrition drink devised by Underhill, 44, originally as a means to cope with symptoms of cystic fibrosis. Rumble has found a foothold here, but the U.S. is a different world.
“The west coast of the U.S. is the most competitive market for health food and beverages,” Underhill said. “There’s many more products, and companies spend a lot on marketing. We have to rely on the strength of our product, and word of mouth.”
Over the past two years, Rumble has found its way into groceries and health food stores across Canada, and it had its biggest month yet in December after Underhill and colleagues Kim and James McQueen appeared on Dragons’ Den.
The drink and the company have come a long way in five years, since Underhill started grinding together fruits and vegetables at his Victoria home in a desperate bid to get food into his body. Along with causing chronic lung infections, cystic fibrosis inhibits the efficient absorption of nutrients.
In those days, Underhill hunted around supplement shops and health food stores for meal replacements that were nutritious, organic and didn’t taste awful. As a professional researcher with degrees in psychology and law, he dug into blending a drink from scratch.
“There was nothing out there to drink with a healthy balance. I needed something that didn’t exist. I was forced to make my own,” he said. “But obviously it wasn’t just me that needed it.”
Steve Hughes, 45, who lives in View Royal, encouraged Underhill to develop his “super shake” as a commercial product. He left his job as general manager of Albion Fisheries to help get Rumble off the ground.
“I told Paul he should try to do this. It’s not just the health-compromised that need this. Everyone needs better choices and nutrition,” Hughes said. “We realized going from the blender at home to production was a big leap. We hired a food scientist. We knew we needed authentication.”
Kim McQueen, a naturopathic doctor, formulated the ingredients to maximize the proteins, nutrients and taste. They couldn’t find a manufacturer in Canada to produce Rumble, but found one in an undisclosed location the U.S. With financing from friends and family, Rumble launched in October 2012 at a trade show in Toronto.
Neither a protein or energy drink or meal supplement, Rumble is designed as Canada’s first “nourishing drink.” The company’s first commercial order came from Lifestyle Markets, and the first bottle was sold at Niagara Market.
Underhill said the final product is healthier than what he made at home – McQueen insisted on pumping up the omega-3s, an essential fatty acid found in fish and nuts.
“Creating a tasty all-natural leading-edge nutritional drink with omega-3s was challenging. In lab testing the formulation was worked on for over 18 months,” Hughes said. “It took time to work through the formulation to create a stable shelf life.”
In the midst of developing Rumble, Underhill’s cystic fibrosis came on with a vengeance, and in 2011, he was on oxygen 24 hours per day. On April 22, 2011, an air ambulance shuttled him to Toronto in critical condition, and by a stroke of fate, he was undergoing double lung transplant surgery within 12 hours.
A year later, Underhill cycled the 100 km leg of the Tour de Victoria. Rumble went on to sponsor and Underhill rode the 1,200 km Vancouver to Banff ride for cystic fibrosis, and the company continues to sponsor cyclists and other athletes. “It was too much to even leave the house (in 2011). I was tethered to a tube. It’s hard to reconcile then and now,” he said.
As seen on TV, Rumble struck a deal with Dragons’ Den investors, but Underhill said that dissolved amicably amid interest from an investors group in Toronto, which is financing their push into the U.S.
From being a civil servant, a cyclist and a health nut, Underhill never envisioned being a guy who negotiated with venture capitalists.
“I never anticipated coming down this path at all. But we realized we had something here,” he said. “I saw the potential and my friends did too.”