While working as markets director for Bord Bia, Michael Murphy was particularly well placed to spot a gap in the market for fortified yogurts.
The discovery of the gap led him to set up a company, leave Bord Bia and develop yogurts containing protein, vitamin D and calcium which he now sells in close to 40 supermarket stores around Dublin, as well as some gyms and hospital canteens.
All of this came about because he was unable to find a product containing both vitamin D and added protein to aid the recovery of his elderly mother.
He said: “I did some research and found that there were yogurts with vitamin D and yogurts with protein but none that catered for both bone and muscle health.”
Further research revealed that many companies offered fortified yogurts for sports people but that few were targeting older people and creating products specifically for their needs.
“Sarcopenia is the gradual loss of muscle mass that occurs as a result of aging — I looked at research which showed that people can combat this by consuming protein,” he added.
While still working at Bord Bia he developed, with the assistance of Teagasc and Killowen Yogurts, a prototype fortified yogurt product in four flavours.
In 2015 he enrolled in the Food Works programme backed by Enterprise Ireland and Board Bia. Securing some feasibility funding, he set up M&J Nutrition with his wife Jane and worked on the company business plan.
“We looked at markets, consumer needs and consumer motivation and we also refined the product — it needed to taste good in addition to being good for you,” he said.
For his new product, he chose the brand name ProU.
“This is now the only yogurt containing high protein, calcium and Vitamin D — and has two times more protein and three times more calcium than regular yogurts,” he added.
In January 2016, Mr Murphy took the jump and left Bord Bia, found an office in the Guinness Enterprise Centre in Dublin, got Killowen Farm in Wexford to manufacture, and launched at Bloom Garden Festival in June.
His first big sale happened quickly and by the end of June he was supplying 12 SuperValu stores in Dublin — an order to supply 10 Dublin Tesco stores followed in August.
He said: “We have since added some independent stores — and recently got our first nationwide listing with Spar. This will give us access to the health care sector and we can market it to hospitals. This week it started selling in the canteen in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.”
Working out a sales strategy, Mr Murphy has identified two key markets — the over 40s who want to look after their bones and muscles, and sports people. Noting that 70% of yogurts on supermarket shelves in Ireland are imported, he sees an opportunity for some import substitution.
For a small Irish company to develop sales in a market dominated by major well funded global brands, he knows it’s not going to be easy. “We need to build awareness,’’ he said, adding that getting the message out that fortified yogurt can help older people mitigate age related conditions is going to take time.
“In store tastings are a key element in our marketing strategy — we are doing tastings every Friday and Saturday in Tesco and SuperValu stores in Dublin — this is a great way to get recognition,” he said.
M&J Nutrition employs one full time staff member in addition to Mr Murphy, also uses social media to make its presence known.
The goal for 2017 is to have nationwide sales with two large retailers by the end of the year. Mr Murphy also wants grow sales to food services companies which supply the healthcare sector. He sees huge potential to supply hospitals and nursing homes.
While this type of fortified product now sells better to sports people and athletes, he believes that in the future the major demand will come from the over 40s.
Longterm, M&J Nutrition is looking at exports and sees potential to sell to the UK and Europe.