Sports physiologist Allen Lim’s secret mixes from natural ingredients are giving energy bar and drink companies a run for their money.
Allen Lim (MKines’96, PhDIntPhys’04) took his first joy ride when he was 4 about three blocks from El Sereno Elementary in the central Los Angeles neighborhood where he lived. He flew down a hill on a bright pink bicycle, arms outstretched, as if he were a bird in flight. When it was over, he proudly announced to his parents that he had taught himself how to ride.
As he grew, the bike became a tool of discovery. When he was 13, he rode with his brother, cousin and friends from Los Angeles to San Diego. He rode every day after that.
Later, the bike inspired him to become one of the top sports physiologists in cycling and, most recently for the 2013 USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. Moreover, in 2012 it led him to start Skratch Labs, his Boulder-based food company. His products are created from real food ingredients, which also are featured in two cookbooks he co-wrote with Chef Biju Thomas called The Feed Zone and the Feed Zone Portables, which caters to athletes with many quick-prep meals for before, during and after workouts.
“It’s given athletes permission to use real food,” says 41-year-old Lim. “Real food just works better.”
The road to Skratch began with Lim working as a sports physiologist for two top cycling teams — Garmin Professional Cycling and the Radio Shack pro team at the Tour de France anchored by Lance Armstrong. He spent 270 days on the road annually in buses, airplanes and cars that chased cyclists during the races. In 2008, after his cyclists complained of stomach problems, he developed sports drinks and foods using natural ingredients. Rather than make an “orange” drink, he used real oranges. He made cakes with sushi rice. He avoided artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors and reduced the sugar.
When he gave his creations to his cyclists, they stopped complaining about stomach aches. Some, he says, even replaced the products they were endorsing and paid to use, with Lim’s own “secret” mixes.
In 2011 Lim found his childhood diary chronicling the foods he ate before rides. It was a transformative moment. After years of being on the road with cyclists, Lim faced the irony that he had no time to ride. He also became increasingly disillusioned by the sport’s doping and corruption. He says he realized that the lies being told within sports nutrition and the food industry as a whole were just as bad, if not worse, than cycling’s doping problem. He asked himself if he was more offended by the steroids athletes used or by those same steroids used in beef available at the supermarket.
Two months later, in February 2012, he launched Skratch Labs with the help of co-founders Aaron Foster and Ian McGregor.
“Allen decided to put his talents into applying science to practice, recognizing science is needed to help create the knowledge that we will later apply to practice,” says integrative physiology associate professor William Byrnes, Lim’s mentor, who continues to act as a consultant and friend.
Lim encountered several challenges starting his business, of course. His ingredients were real, not manufactured, and therefore couldn’t be mass-produced. Fresh food is more expensive, so his products cost more. Because his mixes spoil like real food, athletes accustomed to stashing energy products in their cupboards for months were slow to warm to Lim’s offerings.
Olympic hopeful Heather Utrata of Greeley uses Skratch products because they are natural, and it’s hard to find natural products in the sports endurance world. Utrata has won four marathons and qualified for the upcoming Olympic trials as a runner.
“I used to just kind of ‘deal with’ having things like high fructose corn syrup in my gels and hydration,” she says. “I’m not a health nut by any means, but I do care about what I put in my body.”
The real problems, Lim says, came when he formed Skratch with some friends and, rather than trust his instincts, he hired consultants, attorneys and marketing professionals. The advice was costly, and in the end Lim ignored it. They told him he needed to borrow a lot of money to grow the company and hire senior experts.
“The lesson we did learn was that we needed to trust ourselves,” Lim says. “That to succeed we simply had to spend less money than we made, keep cash on hand and not leverage ourselves, allowing our sales to drive our growth and decision-making process.”
Today, Skratch hydration mixes are available in more than 2,000 stores that run the gamut from bike dealers and running stores to outdoor shops. They have been available in REI stores since February. Lim distributes to Canada and ships around the world from direct online orders.
The company has zero debt and is profitable. While Lim does not want to share specific numbers, the company’s gross sales in 2012 and 2013 were in the millions of dollars. It has grown from a staff of three to 15 full-time and four-to-eight part-time employees during the summer and about six outside reps.
“Compared to many companies that are heavily leveraged, we have a real and sustainable business,” Lim says, “and at the end of the day I can’t really ask for anything more.”
Today Lim is proud of cycling. It remains one of the few sports that has taken measures to tackle doping. This includes the last September’s election of Brian Cookson to head cycling’s world governing body, the International Cycling Union. Cookson’s predecessor Pat McQuaid, who served for eight years, was criticized for trying to disrupt the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigations into Armstrong’s alleged doping. In 2012 Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after admitting he had doped.
“There’s a dark side to cheating in every discipline,” Lim says. “On some level, there’s been a lot of applause for what I do now. But there will always be some form of guilt by association, and that’s just fine. I’m proud of what I did to help clean up that culture.”
But he doesn’t want to forget a big reason why he left cycling. On a slower afternoon he will leave work for a couple hours and go for a ride.
“Part of the idea now is to have a lifestyle, not just a product, that is sustainable,” Lim says. “We want to practice what we preach.”