Crashing through gates and bouncing over moguls, competitive skiers pound their knees mercilessly. So when you spend years as their orthopedic surgeon -- as Dr. Kevin R. Stone has -- you learn a lot about joint pain. But until a few years ago, the Bay Area physician's treatment for athletes was limited to prescribing ibuprofen and advising patients on how to avoid injury. Unsatisfied with those options, the daredevil skiers began to experiment with alternative treatments. One they came to love led Stone to launch a company that sells an Orangina-like product called Joint Juice, which has quickly gained national distribution. That a product concocted by a doctor has gotten so far so fast is surprising -- as is the fact that Stone thinks his medical duties have actually helped him grow the business, not held it back.
Stone always had an entrepreneurial streak. In addition to his practice, he founded a biotech company and a business that makes surgical tools. Today those businesses share a building with Joint Juice Inc. The idea for the beverage company came to Stone in the mid 1990s, when he learned that his patients were ingesting glucosamine supplements -- giant pills used by vets to ease animals' joint pain. "The nurse-practitioner who I had worked with for years elbowed me and said, 'We should pay attention to this," Stone recalls.
Studies convinced the doctor that the substance, which is made from shellfish, was safe and effective. But since it came in horse-sized doses, only a few patients were willing to take it regularly. So Stone started thinking about an energy bar. The concept got a boost when Stone mentioned it to Rick Cronk, president of Dreyer's Ice Cream. Cronk sent Stone to talk to Pete Mattson, president of Mattson & Co., who had developed products both for big companies (Kraft, ConAgra) and for upstarts (Boca Burger, Balance Bar).
Mattson liked Stone's concept for a joint-treatment product and was willing to work for a reduced fee. But he had a different idea about what Stone should bring to market. He recommended a beverage, which would have fewer calories than an energy bar and would appeal more to health-conscious consumers. Plus, having helped develop the Frappuccino for Starbucks, Mattson believed that Stone could make a lot more money with a drink. The market for nutraceuticals exceeds $4.7 billion by one estimate -- "a much larger business than bars or candy, in the range of four or five times," Mattson notes.
During the next few months, Stone and Mattson's company perfected a fruit-flavored glucosamine-laced concoction. To line up potential distributors and investors, they brought in a steady stream of VIPs to watch Stone work with patients. "The clinic is impressive," says Jack Robertson, a consultant who acts as Joint Juice's chief operating officer. "People come in and see all these thank-yous from the ballet companies and the skiers, and it makes them want to help." Stone also persuaded two of his patients, Olympic skiers Picabo Street and Jonny Moseley, to appear on Joint Juice billboards in California.
As with any consumer product, Joint Juice will face competition from larger players. During the development phase, Stone claims, Procter & Gamble approached him to purchase the idea. He says he turned the company down because it didn't offer enough money in royalties. Six months later, he adds, P&G was market-testing a glucosamine drink of its own, but that drink has not made it out of development. "It goes to show you that it's easier to innovate with a passionate founder than in a big company with a corporate-development point of view," Stone says. (Procter & Gamble does not comment on acquisition candidates, but a spokeswoman acknowledges, "We're always looking for interesting opportunities.")
Today Joint Juice's revenue is close to $1 million. The carbonated beverage sold well enough in Albertson's stores in northern California -- outselling glucosamine pills -- that the chain agreed to distribute it nationally, as rival grocer Safeway has done. But despite the heavy workload that such growth demands of him, Stone has no plans to give up his medical practice. His patients have proved to be too vital to Joint Juice's success.
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