Words by Tanya Grimson
June 27th, 2019
We had the pleasure of catching up with Alison Stroh, the co-founder and director of Dr. Coy’s Health Foods that has taken over the healthy food space in Ireland and is on the way to international success.
Alison talks to us about her origin to start-up success, her challenges, what it takes to succeed and what advice she has for others who would like to follow suit.
On the origin of the business
I had just spent 12 years working in marketing positions both in the US and Germany. Whilst working in Germany in 2010, I had my first child and struggled to find truly healthy snacks — ones that did not spike insulin and blood sugar levels. I had heard Dr. Coy, a renowned biologist from the Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, speak at a conference and, inspired by his research, I reached out to him proposing to commercialise his invention to bring it to a wider audience. And so shortly after I returned to Ireland, Dr. Coy’s Health Foods was born.
On the difficulty as a start-up in Ireland bringing a new product to market?
The supports to set up your own business in Ireland in sectors such as digital, tech and food are unrivalled in a lot of European Countries.
Initially, I benefited from attending the Hothouse New Frontiers Workshops and Dublin Food Chain events which are brilliant for food start-ups. The SuperValu Food Academy programme was also a great launchpad into retail and it helped Dr. Coy’s get our products nationwide into over 200 SuperValu stores.
I was delighted to achieve the Enterprise Ireland Competitive Start Fund (CSF) specifically for female founders. I also participated in the Going for Growth programme sponsored by KPMG and EI.
These programmes are unique in providing female founders business supports, financial assistance, mentors and workshops and most importantly, the invaluable networking opportunities with other female founders.
I feel that the real challenge begins when your product is listed; competing for shelf space with larger brands, tight margins in the food industry and finding suitable distribution solutions.
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On the unique proposition that differentiated the brand from others in the healthy food space?
Dr. Coy’s chocolate is the only chocolate in the world patented due to its health benefits! Developed by award-winning oncologist, Dr. Johannes Coy, this is chocolate ‘reinvented for sustained energy’ with approved health claims.
Many snacks that claim to be healthy are still loaded with ingredients that cause inflammation or raise blood sugar levels. We use a rich 54% chocolate as a carrier for the plant-based fibre and concentrated vitamin E which offer various benefits. In addition, the naturally derived rare sugars that we use do not cause blood sugar spikes (which in turn avoids insulin spikes) and are tooth-friendly in that they are non-cariogenic. Owing to these original and unique factors our nutritional chocolate bar is patented.
On your greatest achievements to date for the brand?
The business incorporated in 2015 and perhaps my biggest achievement was taking a revolutionary invention born out of medical research, then disrupting and reframing the consumer in order to ‘mainstream’ a health product. The importance of this cannot be underestimated given the current diabetes and obesity epidemic.
Our initial platform was from the Food Academy (Bord Bia, LEO, SuperValu) and we have recently launched into Dunnes Stores and Tesco so Dr. Coy’s is now available in the top 3 multiples in the country!
Exports to the UK have grown and our products are now listed on Ocado (the UK’s fastest growing online retailer) and on all Ryanair flights Europe wide. We are proud that our products won in the Irish Quality Food Awards, the Free From Food Awards and the UK Veggie Awards in 2018. Other customers include Selfridges, The Marriott Hotel and Google.
We were selected to participate in the Thrive Programme run by Coca Cola. The highlight of the programme was when Coca Cola hosted the participants for a series of high-level business workshops at their headquarters in Atlanta where we were treated to market insight presentations from senior executives. It was also an honour to be chosen as a Nissan Brand Ambassador.
We really enjoy working on new product development we are delighted to launch two new nutritional chocolate flavours, Hazelnut Caramel and Orange Crisp, in April 2019
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On your biggest challenge to date and how you overcame it?
Challenges occur daily for start-ups, so dealing calmly with the minor challenges prepares us for when bigger issues arise.
In 2015, shortly after Dr. Coy’s had secured a nationwide listing with Musgrave, our warehouse was struck with fire and we lost everything. Whilst initially shook, we were efficient in getting the business back up and running in a short space of time. I used the opportunity also to improve our logistics capacity to enable Dr. Coy’s to grow even further.
Additionally, I am faced with an ongoing personal work-life challenge as my husband has been working overseas on an almost permanent basis for the last three years. With two young children and an even younger start-up business, my patience and organisations skills are constantly challenged. My challenge and (hopefully) success has been maintaining equilibrium with the work-life balance by planning this all-important ‘me-time’ in as part of my calendar on a regular basis.
On knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
To be very honest I’m very happy with the path I’ve chosen and the decisions I’ve made along the way. I’m not sure if there is anything specifically that I would have done differently. However, everything does take longer than you initially anticipate, so if at all possible I would recommend someone in my shoes to work part-time initially until the venture gets well and truly off the ground so you can financially support yourself.
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On the future?
We are currently in negotiations with some high profile investors with a view to taking the company to the next level. This means taking the level of success in Ireland to the UK and beyond.
The company has recently engaged distributors in the UK, the Middle East and Asia. Once the investment is secured, we will have 7 positions which we will need to fill over the next 12 months.
On advice would you give to anyone who is looking to launch their own product?
Spend plenty of time researching your idea and understanding in depth your customers’ needs. This will be of huge benefit at a later stage as you define and refine your product offering, brand and positioning vs the competition. Speak to those in the industry who have also set up their own business to get a full understanding of what’s involved. Otherwise, go for it; it’s a huge challenge but can be highly rewarding on many levels. In the food industry, there are great supports out there such as Bord Bia, Dublin Food Chain, SuperValu’s Food Academy Programme and the FoodWorks programme. We have a wonderful network of food producers with whom we can collaborate. So the advice is to research your target market and always develop your network.
For more info or to buy online see. www.drcoys.ie
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