Adversity leads to innovation
Sara Raposo-Blouw, left, and Erin Goldberg taste the chocolate mocha and vanilla blueberry flavours of Thrive. (photo by Ian Blouw)
Erin Goldberg, 30, was only 5 years old when it was discovered that she had rhabdomyosarcoma in her abdomen, attached to one of her ovaries.
Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is an aggressive and highly malignant form of cancer that develops from skeletal muscle cells that have failed to fully differentiate. It is generally considered to be a disease of childhood, as the vast majority of cases occur in those below the age of 18.
Growing up in Winnipeg, Goldberg spent almost 130 days at the Health Sciences Centre (HSC) receiving treatments and recovering from procedures over a two-year span before she was cleared of RMS.
Goldberg’s struggle with the cancer and her unwavering will to make the world a better place have served as a driving force in her life ever since. And her memories from that time, as a child struggling to keep food down, have led to her helping develop a liquid food replacement that would have been priceless to her when she had RMS.
“Basically, everything I ate was making me nauseous, and that was due to chemotherapy,” Goldberg told the Independent. “It sort of alters your taste. And I would also throw up anything I would eat. It was important to have as many bland foods as possible. With liquid nutrition, it’s a lot easier to consume your calories than with anything solid. It’s denser and is a better option in the hospital.”
Goldberg said she went into nutrition because she was interested in disease prevention. After meeting Sara Raposo-Blouw and Lisa Reed, dieticians at the HSC, and them sharing their experiences with one another, they came up with the idea of a liquid nutritional drink. They knew, firsthand, the lack of options people had.
“The beverage options in hospitals were really lacking,” said Goldberg. “Patients find the taste of what there is too sweet. I recently spoke to my friend’s dad, who is a psychiatrist, and he actually prescribes Boost six times a day for one of his patients, because he has a motor disorder … he’s constantly moving, so his caloric requirement is elevated so much. He needs to have six of these beverages in addition to his regular food intake. When you have that much of something that is too sweet and has ingredients that are highly processed, or if you’re vegan or have allergies, you just can’t do it. You need an alternative. And there was really nothing out there.”
Goldberg and partners have developed a new option, called Thrive, that uses local ingredients, two of them being flax oil and pea protein. The formula is completely plant-based and free of major allergens, like dairy, soy, corn and wheat.
The trio solicited the help of a Burnaby beverage developer to help them produce the drink with the necessary specialized equipment.
While competitors have come out with flavoured drinks and drinks that cater to particular groups of users, Thrive differs in that it is a basic formula that everyone can use, adding their own ingredients as desired, depending on their needs.
“Currently, we have one adult formula, but we’re working on one for children,” said Goldberg. “The main difference between the one for adults and the one for children is the protein content. It’s very easy for us to adjust the formula accordingly. And, as far as different patient populations, we don’t have other types of formulas. Basically, if a higher caloric content is necessary, then more of the beverage would be prescribed. But, at this time, we only have one formula.
“The palatability really stands out for our product compared to these other competitors,” she said. “A lot of the ingredients they use are bitter. They are trying to mask that bitter taste with the sweetness, coming up with flavours like chocolate, strawberry and vanilla.”
Because of its mild flavour, Thrive also can be used to make solid food, similarly to milk, but with a much higher nutritional punch. For those seeking a flavoured drink, they can choose to add whatever flavour they wish to the degree of sweetness they like.
A couple of months ago, Goldberg flew to Montreal to accept the Social Mitacs Entrepreneur Award and a $5,000 cheque, in recognition of what she and her partners are doing. Different levels of government have also stepped up with funding, as has North Forage.
“We’ve been receiving support from North Forage, a business incubator in Winnipeg,” said Goldberg. “They’ve helped us get off the ground and understand the business side of things, because we are coming at it from a science background. So, the three of us needed some input there.
“We are currently looking for investors,” she added. “We have a couple that are interested, but we need more to move on to our next phase and are looking at government funding. Once we are up and running, our first year, we are planning on having online sales direct to the consumer.”
Based in Winnipeg, their initial target is to partner with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, as well as other health authorities across Canada. Goldberg is confident that, once they taste the product and look at the nutritional information, the authorities will sign on.
The partners are also confident that their target timeline of production by next summer can be met, even with the need to do a scale-up and validation trial in Quebec because no facility in Manitoba is currently capable of doing this.
“We require very specialized equipment when it comes to the aseptic packaging that we require, because we want our product to be shelf-stable, so it doesn’t have to be in the refrigerator,” said Goldberg. “That equipment is very expensive and very specialized. They have it in Quebec. Once we scale-up, we will go to Toronto and that will be our facility to actually produce the product on an ongoing basis.”
At the moment, the partners are working with their lawyers to set up the deal structure to bring in investors for the validation tests (costing $250,000).
For more information, visit vitalfoods.ca.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.