When Emily Lagasse, MBA’15, returned from the Peace Corps in Togo, she brought someone special home with her: a dog she had named Fenway. Lagasse was volunteering in a small, remote village in the West African country when, seeking companionship, she bought the puppy from a roadside merchant.
But soon after they arrived in Lagasse’s hometown of Sudbury, Mass., Fenway became ill, suffering from severe digestive problems and itchy, red skin. When in Africa, Lagasse didn’t have access to manufactured dog food, so she and Fenway ate similarly, dining on rice and beans. Now, however, no brand of dog food seemed to agree with Fenway’s system, and he would go days without eating. Not sure what else to try, Lagasse took a dog-food cooking class, taught by a holistic nutritionist, and started making Fenway’s meals from ingredients such as meats and vegetables. The change in her pup was dramatic. “He immediately started eating again, which made me so happy,” Lagasse says. “Within a few weeks his digestive problems were gone, and he seemed like himself.”
Concern for her pet put Brianna Stiklickas ’15 on a similar path. When she took her hedgehog, Eugene, to the vet for an annual checkup, the doctor reported that Eugene was obese, a condition that would likely shorten his life. Stiklickas thought she’d been feeding him well; breeders advise owners to avoid hedgehog food because it contains unhealthy fillers and to use high-quality cat food instead. But the cat food contained much more fat and calories than Eugene needed. Stiklickas put him on a diet, making his food herself with leaner meats. As he lost weight, he grew friendlier and less lethargic. “The average life span of a hedgehog is between four and six years,” Stiklickas reports. “But if you feed them the right way, and they don’t contract any serious diseases like cancer, they can live for nine.”
Both women say the more they learned about pet food ingredients, the more passionate they became about the need for alternatives. So the two began their challenging journeys into the world of U.S. pet food, which generated more than $22 billion in sales in 2014 and is dominated by three main companies. Lagasse’s company, Fedwell, began distributing kibble to Boston-area pet stores in 2014. Stiklickas recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her first batch of hedgehog food, sold under the Meet Eugene label.
To create her kibble, Lagasse began experimenting with recipes in her kitchen using nutrient-dense ingredients such as lamb, sweet potatoes, salmon, and carrots. She soon decided that baking the food was her best bet. Most pet food is extruded, meaning that it is forced through a tube at high pressure and temperature, a process that strips nutrients; manufacturers add synthetic vitamins to compensate. Lagasse learned that if she baked the food instead, she wouldn’t need the synthetic nutrients.
She tested the food on Fenway and friends’ dogs, and distributed samples at local specialty stores. The tests were a success. “Dogs love every recipe I’ve ever made because it’s real food,” Lagasse says. “They know it’s real because they have such a strong sense of smell, and the baking process really retains the flavor.” (She has future plans to make cat food, although she believes the process will be harder: “Cats are notoriously picky.”)
Lagasse hired a family-run factory in Georgia to manufacture the first batch—2,400 pounds of lamb kibble, which she sold online and through 14 Boston specialty stores. But she soon learned that the Georgia factory was purchased by a manufacturer with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. In meetings with this new owner, she faced resistance to her recipe, in part because most of the company’s products are extruded, not baked. “An executive said to me, ‘Emily, you are taking us places that we have never been before, and it’s making us all very uncomfortable,’” she recalls. Ultimately, the company decided not to make Fedwell. Soon Lagasse had sold all of her inventory.
Thus began a long, hard search to find a facility equipped to make her recipe. Recently, Lagasse teamed up with a manufacturer in Oklahoma that is “100 percent behind the product,” she says. They’re running test batches this summer and expect to be back on store shelves by fall. Lagasse also conducted a successful $20,000 Kickstarter campaign in 2014 and is raising an additional $500,000 from investors to expand her product line. In time, she may get “the big guys” to reevaluate the company and make her product, she says. “My biggest nightmare was running out of product,” says Lagasse, “and that already happened, so I guess I can only go up from here.”
When Stiklickas realized as a Babson undergrad that she wanted to produce healthy food for hedgehogs, she started conducting market research, interviewing more than 500 hedgehog owners. The interviews convinced her that this was a vibrant and growing community. (“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “They’re all a little obsessed.”) Classmates, professors, and even her parents were largely skeptical and bemused until Stiklickas showed them statistics on market growth. Last year the hedgehog market grew 45 percent, and this year 50 percent. “There are now over 140,000 hedgehogs as pets just within the United States,” she says.
Initial plans are to manufacture a small batch of Meet Eugene hedgehog food, which she formulated in consultation with breeders, vets, and a food scientist. The recipe emphasizes easy-to-digest fiber from broccoli and sweet potatoes instead of grain-based fillers. Once her hedgehog food hits the market, Stiklickas plans to branch out beyond food. “We’ll be selling virtually anything with a hedgehog on it,” she says, and that includes tiny hedgehog sweaters.
Stiklickas feels pressure to make Meet Eugene a success. “Now that I’ve graduated, this is my full-time job,” she says. “In five years, I would like to be known as the hedgehog food company with the best source of nutrition for your animal.” At that point she hopes to launch product lines for other exotic pets, including degus, small rodents native to Chile, and sugar gliders, a type of marsupial.
To grow her company, Lagasse will focus on the Boston market while building Fedwell’s brand and testing strategies. Her long-term goal is to go nationwide with a range of pet products; in five to seven years she hopes to be acquired by a larger company. Given the manufacturing hurdles, Lagasse has considered quitting more than once. When in doubt, she looks at her office bulletin board, covered in notes and emails from pet owners who love her dog food. “People thank me,” she says, “and that’s really what keeps me going.”—Erin O’Donnell