Meet the Innovators: Lars Rikse
Lars Rikse heads Strategy, Analytics, and Business Development for Uplifting Results Labs (UR Labs), a TPB-founded company developing foods that improve human health. Lars received a Masters in Civil Engineering from the University of Leuven in Belgium and a Masters in Structural Engineering from Cambridge University in the UK. After consulting with Bain & Company, Lars served as Head of Strategy at Red Bull and as SVP of Brands at Winc before joining UR Labs in 2019.
TPB: Your career has taken you from energy drinks, to wine, to better-for-you products. Tell us how you got started in the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) space and your career path since?
Lars: I spent five years at Bain as a consultant, which exposed me to a lot of different industries including CPG. I got to know a lot of great consumer brands and I loved being able to focus on everyday consumer behavior. CPG is naturally something everyone can relate to so you can talk about work with friends without it feeling like work.
I knew I wanted to stay in the CPG space after Bain, but wasn’t set on beverages in particular. Red Bull just felt like a great fit. They had not only a strong product, but also a strong culture and brand I relate to.
From there the beverage experience brought me to Winc and then UR Labs. In the wine industry, I learned the importance of good management and how much I valued working with like-minded individuals. And that is what I found with Marc Washington, the CEO of UR Labs, a health and wellness company developing science-based nutrition products to target prevalent health conditions. Marc and I share a common background in consulting, so his rational, data-driven approach to business is something I can really appreciate. The natural affinity I had with Marc and the team, paired with my belief in the company’s mission and its ability to make an impact, sold me on the move to UR Labs.
It’s been an exciting first year, with the launch of our first product in May, Muniq, a delicious meal replacement shake that helps manage blood sugar levels and weight, increase insulin sensitivity, and can even reduce A1C (average blood sugar levels) over time.
TPB: What did you learn at Red Bull that can be applied to the health/nutrition focus at UR Labs?
Lars: Red Bull does a lot of things well, starting with focus. They’ve been selling essentially the same product for 30 years, which allowed them to become really efficient and master everything from distribution to in-store merchandising. But a key competitive advantage is in their marketing. Many food brands focus too much on ingredients. Red Bull focuses on the value — both functional and emotional — the product offers to the consumer, not on what’s in the can. That’s something we embrace at UR Labs. Our first product, Muniq, helps manage blood sugar by feeding gut bacteria with prebiotic resistant starch. But we won’t succeed by marketing the chemistry – we have to explain how it impacts people's health, and ultimately quality of life.
TPB: We’ve seen a huge surge of better-for-you brands and health products like UR Labs/Muniq in the last few years. Do you think this trend is here to stay?
Lars: I think better-for-you has been around longer than we realize. Better-for-you exists at every company. It’s about being responsible within the context of the product and making conscious decisions about health. At Red Bull they made it a point not to market to children, had smaller can sizes and lower caffeine content than many competitors. That was an important decision in my joining the company — that they tried to do the right thing.
I believe better-for-you as a stand-alone category is here to stay, but for me mass-market adoption still feels like a bi-coastal phenomenon rather than a national one. The better-for-you label can come with an elitist stigma and a higher price point. If you want to reach a broader audience, like we do at UR Labs, marketing as a health product or brand is not enough. There are three main barriers I see that we need to overcome for a product or brand in this category to really go mainstream: taste, education, and cost.
TPB: How is UR doing addressing these barriers so far?
Lars: With Muniq, much of our initial product development focus has been on taste. In fact, we consider taste to be as equally important as efficacy. The reason for this is that our target consumer cares a lot about taste. 80 percent say they won’t consume a healthy product unless it tastes good. Healthy for the sake of healthy, as I often see here in Los Angeles, just doesn't work for our customer. We know that if we want to succeed in our mission to improve people’s health, we have to offer a product that is also delicious. That’s why our product development team has spent months creating a variety of shakes that are truly the best tasting on the market.
TPB: Let’s move to the education component. Why is education important and how are you getting information about your product out there?
Lars: You can’t expect customers to do the research themselves. And even if they do, it's a competitive marketplace and there’s a lot of false information out there. We have to get customers to buy into the journey with us — we have to spend time educating them, not only about our product, but also about their own health conditions. To do this we need a direct line of communication to our customers. This is a big reason we decided to focus on eCommerce D2C sales — so we can speak directly to our consumers — something that can’t be done from the shelf of a CVS or Walmart.
Testimonials are one of the main ways we get our message across. We show real consumers of Muniq who’ve benefited from the product. Many customers are looking for immediate results, but we aren’t selling a short-term fix with Muniq, we are selling a lifestyle change. Being able to share stories that show the long-term value is how we get buy in. We can educate you on the science but seeing other people tell their stories and how Muniq has improved lives, really puts things in perspective.
TPB: Okay so how do you solve the price issue?
Lars: Honestly, this is something we are still working on. It’s a formidable challenge for UR Labs and most other better-for-your brands. There is definitely an opportunity to bring down the price of our product but that will be a longer term journey which we hope to tackle as we scale.
For now we’ve been primarily using consumer education to address the price component. At $3.50 a serving Muniq might cost more than other products but it replaces a full meal AND fundamentally changes people’s long-term health. In the context of what people spend on breakfast or lunch, it isn’t really that expensive.
As we continue to grow, we will remain committed to educating our customers and making our products more accessible to the people who need them most across the board.
TPB: Why is access so important?
Lars: Beyond the obvious advantages of scale, there’s an important element of mission.
Diabetes affects over 100 million Americans a year but like COVID-19, the disease has a disproportionate impact on under-served populations — particularly people of color. To succeed in our mission and have our product make a real impact, we need to lower the barriers to access for these communities.
Most of our employees have direct touch points to our customers at Muniq or have someone in their lives that has been adversely affected by a chronic health condition. We know we are up for a big challenge, but our team is mission driven and determined to break through the perception that healthy products are for elite consumers, a luxury or something only available in affluent markets.