Bright Ideas: (Not too) sweet success

When Ethan Lewis was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 12, he began to countdown the healthy years he had left. Lewis’ doctor warned him about the complications that go hand-in-hand with the disease, “He told me, you’ll probably only get 25 good years out of life before you succumb to the traditional diabetes complications which include blindness, kidney failure, amputation and heart disease,” Lewis said.

Most people with diabetes can delay and often avoid those outcomes through proper dieting, nutrition, exercise and if necessary, with medication. So, the prognosis wasn’t quite right, but Lewis says those words stay with him every day, “I said to myself, gosh, if I’m gonna fall apart by the time I’m age 40 I have to do more at a younger age to be successful.”

It’s no wonder, then, that by age 27, Lewis built a company specializing in low-carb, low-sugar foods that can help a person with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels. Now called Level Foods, the company is selling protein bars, shakes and glucose gels in more than 7,000 stores nationwide.

The concept was born out of Lewis’ own struggles. After college, Lewis had a steady job, but he wasn’t happy paying $60 a month for glucose gels, an essential treatment that people with diabetes often use two to three times a week to treat low blood sugar. “Left untreated a low blood sugar can lead to coma or death in a matter of hours,” Lewis wanted a better solution, “I couldn’t figure out why it was so expensive, I joke to people all the time, we sell sugar water… there’s no reason it has to be expensive. The other companies were being greedy,” he said.

Lewis figured there had to be other people struggling to pay for their diabetes supplies too and why not? According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 26 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes. If the current trends continue, the CDC estimates that by 2050, one in three Americans could have diabetes.

Knowing full well how quickly the community of people with diabetes is growing, Lewis had the bright idea to make cheaper, better tasting and easier to carry glucose gels he called, GlucoPouch. His company was originally called GlucoBrands, but in 2012 he changed the name to Level Foods.

Despite having dabbled in business as a teenager, selling lower-carb soup crackers to about 15 gourmet shops and restaurants near his home in Connecticut, Lewis had to tackle some of the same issues every entrepreneur confronts. He searched for about six months to find a manufacturer willing to take a chance on a kid trying to disrupt the market. Finding a way to make the product cheaper wasn’t the only thing Lewis wanted to change, “They tasted terrible and were packaged in a toothpaste tube and were extremely medicinal and they screamed ‘disease’ ” he said.

By the time he’d found a manufacturer, it was roughly a week before his first trade show. Lewis shelled out about $10,000, a combination of his own money and investments by friends and family to crank out 10,000 glucose gels, labeling them by hand the night before he presented the product.

The original GlucoPouch

Most entrepreneurs, however, don’t find themselves testing their own product in a life-threatening situation. Months later, the night before Lewis was set to present to diabetes educators, he experienced what he describes as his worst low blood sugar level episode ever. Although he could barely walk, he tested his blood and his blood glucose levels had dropped down to 20. Normal levels are usually around 80. At zero level you can fall into a coma or die. He quickly used the six glucose pouches he had in his hotel room, “I was lucky to have the product with me at the time… otherwise I’m not sure if I would’ve made it,” Lewis described.

Ethan Lewis' first trade show.

Ethan Lewis’ first trade show.

It’s that type of emergency, a sudden low blood sugar reading that has led all 50 states to require that all emergency medical personnel carry around some form of glucose gels. May emergency service organizations found Lewis’ product attractive and suddenly, Lewis found a market.

Jack Finkelstein, the Director of Emergency Medical Services at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn New York, uses Lewis’ product.  He explained why glucose gels are standard operating procedure in his business, “It works right away, it’s absorbed by the systems right away and they come out of it.” Recently, Finkelstein has been using Level’s glucose gels, “it’s a dollar less per pouch, very easy to read the expiration date and patients have been saying it tastes much better,” Finkelstein said.

With the backing of emergency medical personnel, Lewis felt comfortable selling the product to individual consumers online. When GlucoBrands began to gain some traction on the web, deals with CVS and Rite Aid chains followed. By mid-2013, GlucoBrands had almost $1 million in annual sales. That’s when Lewis accepted an undisclosed buyout offer from Boulder Brands, the maker of Smart Balance butter, among other health-conscious product.

Boulder Brands, which has always aimed at health-minded consumers, is refocusing its attention in that area. Many of Boulder’s products are non-GMO and gluten-free. Lewis now serves as Level Foods’ Founder and also refers to himself as “Chief Diabetic.”

The deal allowed Lewis to expand from glucose gels into snack bars and shakes in flavors like, strawberry cream, homemade vanilla and rich caramel. While these snacks can help make it easier for people with diabetes to manage their blood sugars, Lewis is careful to remind people that they’re just snacks, not meal replacements, in line with the recommendations of doctors, dietitians and weight management pros.

“The types of foods and lifestyle modifications that we would recommend for someone with diabetes are the same foods that are healthy for everyone else,” says Despina Hyde a registered dietician and Certified Diabetes Educator at NYU Langone’s Weight Management Program, “So we recommend a balanced diet with lean proteins, non-starchy vegetables and a calculated amount of carbohydrates.” At the same time, Hyde isn’t surprised that Lewis is aiming to make it easier for people to manage diabetes, “it is rampant in our population these days,” she says, “This is a big weight on people’s shoulders. They do feel separated from their peers. So the fact that this company is trying to produce something that would help make it easier isn’t surprising.”

One of the manufacturers Level Foods uses is called Bariatrix Nutrition in Montreal, Canada. There are just a handful of manufacturers like Bariatrix in North America that are nimble enough to produce health-conscious recipes and do limited product runs.

There are even plans to introduce a line of sweet treats later this year. Not that Lewis is in a hurry. He’s making every effort to take good care of himself and expects to be at this for a while; using the prognosis he received as a 12-year-old for inspiration, he says “Every day I remember the doctor’s words, and I actually thank him, I credit him for my success.”

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