Uncovering a problem
Levelle, Inc co-founders Linda Alvarez and Stephanie Schrauth never planned on becoming entrepreneurs. But when a class project in their Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY program brought them together, they exposed a problem they were determined to fix.
As part of their project, they were tasked with interviewing potential customers and creating a new venture to fill a market need. Somewhere along the way of interviewing more than 100 runners and athletes, they noticed a trend emerge.
The male athletes they interviewed prepared for races the same way they did in high school and college, aided by widely available sports energy gels and other products to boost performance. On the other hand, the female athletes they spoke with prioritized nutrition and said the gels the men used with ease were ineffective, or worse, would make them fill bloated or ill.
Only around 2.5% of sports nutrition products target women and less than 3% of sports performance studies even include female athletes. Alvarez and Schrauth — both MBA '21 — knew what they wanted to make: sports nutrition products formulated for female physiology that would properly fuel female athletes, all while tasting great.
“If no one else is doing this, why can’t we do it?” Alvarez said.
Connecting with Cornell AgriTech
With little experience in food manufacturing, they turned to the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture (CoE) for help turning Levelle from class project into a bustling startup company ready to hit the market.
Alvarez, an MD, has a background in nutrition and medicinal plants. Her goal was to design a natural, product made with low- and moderate-glycemic ingredients, including organic fruits, seeds and vegetables. To begin production, the CoE connected Levelle with the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC) who worked with Alvarez and Schrauth to take the fruity purees made at home and turn them into a squeezable shelf-stable pouch.
Fueled by data and feedback from athletes, Alvarez said that they went through eight iterations for each of their initial three flavors. Levelle and the CFVC team then worked step-by-step to finalize the formula, ensure food safety and create a manufacturing process that can be scaled up as the company grows.
“Those two [food safety and manufacturing] in combination really helped us build out what the product is,” Alvarez said.
Still too small to work with a copacker, Levelle is currently producing and packaging its pouches in the CFVC Pilot Plant at Cornell AgriTech, which has allowed them to have a supply of finished product to show to potential investors and retailers. While Levelle is utilizing the Pilot Plant, the CoE mentoring them regarding equipment purchases and connecting them with potential copackers and manufacturers to help set them up for future growth and success.
“We wouldn’t be ready to start commercial sales without this facility,” Alvarez said.
Ready to Launch
Their first products, “Yes, We Cran” and “Strawberry Jams,” will be available for sale on their website in March. Alvarez said the company is currently talking with running stores in the New York area about potentially carrying their products. She also expects Levelle to be selling via third-party platforms, such as Amazon, by the end of the year.
Levelle is largely self-funded, though they have won prizes in several startup competitions, including a $50,000 prize through FuzeHub’s Commercialization Competition at the 2022 New York State Innovation Summit. Levelle was named one of the most disruptive MBA startups of 2021 by Poets & Quants and named a “NutraIngredients-USA Start-up Star” for the upcoming 2023 Sports and Active Nutrition Summit.
Schrauth stressed that Levelle is a food company, not a supplement company. Their strawberry product, which has no sugar added, will be sold in a larger, three-ounce snack pack built just as much for fueling a run as it is for an afternoon pick-me-up.
Beyond the pouches, Alvarez and Schrauth see Levelle as a company that fuels and celebrates women, who have long been ignored in the sports nutrition market.
“Female athletes are empowered,” Alvarez said. “That’s the best part. That’s why we’re doing all of this.”
Jacob Pucci is the marketing and communications coordinator for the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech.
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