Co-Founder of UPGRAID, Helene Rutledge, sits down with Forbes to discuss how her experience as a former big pharma executive gave way to her new endeavor: leading a revolution to move people away from chemicals to treat a variety of ailments.
Brendan Doherty: Great to meet you Helene! I know you come from more of a “big pharma” background. What drew you to UPGRAID? Why now?
Helene Rutledge: For most of my career, I challenged the status quo to evolve the health and wellness space. I was fortunate to work at some of the largest companies – GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Nature’s Bounty, New Avon – but I was frustrated by their inability to change, think big, and act fast. And most importantly to me, there was no sense of urgency to give consumers healthier solutions and reduce our society’s chemical addiction. So when I met my cofounder, Justin Kamine, and learned the idea behind UPGRAID, we were immediately aligned. I knew that it would give me the chance to do what so many of us hope – to use our experiences and knowledge to make a difference. I really believe my life has been leading me to this opportunity. I’m proud to represent a movement away from chemicals and to combining real science with real ingredients.
Doherty: Tell me about what kinds of investors you pulled in? What motivated them?
Rutledge: Our goal was universally understood and supported by our investors: to reduce our daily chemical consumption and change how consumers think about the pharmaceutical industry. We focused our first product on inflammation because nearly everyone struggles with some sort of aches and discomfort, what we call the daily grind. We were very selective in which investors we engaged. Our first round was quickly oversubscribed, and we wanted investors who are builders and could scale globally. We have an amazing founding team of some of the most influential family offices and entrepreneurs, including, Blue.IO, KDC, and many others who have helped build businesses that have grown and been valued in the $100MM’s+. We believe human capital is our most important attribute.
Doherty: Explain the process in assembling such a diverse team of entrepreneurs, how did it add unique value? And where has it posed its challenges?
Rutledge: It was fun assembling such a diverse team. Justin’s major value is his network and he set out with me to build what we call “the social avengers,” a group of amazing people with highly specialized skills who all want to better society. Justin literally cold-called me the first time – and within our first meeting, I saw the vision and the passion and jumped in headfirst.
He and I are a great yin and yang. I have a science background with deep consumer healthcare and pharma experience, and Justin has entrepreneurial grit and the desire to be a wrecking ball in an “established” industry. Once we had this dynamic, we brought on nutrition experts and strategic revenue and marketing pros. Many have led global companies and scaled social platforms to 40 million users. In a direct-to-consumer business, page views and getting the word out is crucial. So we also brought in social media influencers with nutrition or fitness expertise. Ensuring that they spoke the same message and would be trusted by their audience was important to us. We want honesty and transparency to be everyone’s focus.
Doherty: UPGRAID is an early startup facing well-funded incumbents across multiple sectors, from conventional pharmaceuticals to organic food and health supplements. How do you get it to stand out from the noise?
Rutledge: We want to stand out as a company because we’re not just a product – we’re a movement to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals. It’s a much deeper calling for us. We talk about “turning warning labels into positives” and encouraging people to look at things they do every day and make them better. It’s how we treat our own growth as a company, improve daily. We looked at the competitive landscape and saw that consumers don’t really have products that were fully organic and better for your body but with real science behind them. So we created one. At its simplest – we think that building a transparent relationship with our customers about our ingredients is how we earn their trust and stand out from the noise.
Doherty: A key part of your go-to-market strategy leverages previous clinical studies of known ingredients - adding scientific credibility while bringing speed and shrinking R&D costs. Doesn’t that make it easier to copy? How do you keep it defensible?
Rutledge: First, developing the formula, scaling the product, and getting to market costs a lot. We also think our “unfair advantage” is the 20 people in our company who all have immense experience in building, scaling, and growing companies. Other smaller competitors that could feasibly move quickly lack the financial capital, network, and deeper experience. And the big companies that do have the assets are too invested in the status quo and can’t move fast enough to listen to consumers and navigate a changing environment. But even if competitors start promoting fully organic products, we all win by reducing chemical-based products in the market.
Doherty: Some of these dietary supplement brands seem to make miraculous claims without much proof. Does the FDA regulate them? How does honesty fit into your model as you build consumer trust?
Rutledge: Dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA but the challenge is they lack the resources to fully enforce at the national level, so there’s a lot of state-level discretion. The FDA does set safety guidelines – but the bar for effectiveness is lower. The rationale is that supplements are generally for healthy people to help them optimize their health whereas drugs are for treating sick people.
Responsible supplement companies want to separate themselves from bad actors. Because the government doesn’t always do this, it falls to individual companies to earn consumer trust through transparency, honesty, compliance, and leadership. One way to build trust is to also join industry groups like Natural Products Association and Council for Responsible Nutrition. We belong to both and we also engage in conversations about promoting these issues across the industry.
Doherty: Who’s an early role model and how did they influence your career?
Rutledge: My dad was my early role model. He was a no-nonsense New York City police sergeant who was very tough but fair. He was the definition of a good cop – he was reviewed without a single finding against him during the days of the Knapp Commission into police corruption. He told me that I could be anything I wanted as long as I worked hard and always did the right thing. He was fiercely intelligent and always challenged me if he thought I was taking the easy way out. I learned the relentless desire to improve and do good things for others from him. It’s followed me through my entire career.
Doherty: Overall health and wellness starts with our own selves. How do you practice self-care in the context of a demanding startup? How do you model that for your team?
Rutledge: Becoming a mother was the beginning of my journey to better health. I started to scrutinize everything that could impact my unborn baby – nutrition, exercise, and sleep were essential. UPGRAID was so exciting because it fit this overall health mindset. And working out is a great stress release for me as well. Also, at the company, our culture and work-life balance is based on what we have to achieve, not arbitrary office hours or useless meetings. And we have the liberty to change our approach so people can continually work at their best. Admittedly we’re always “on” since start-ups are 24/7 but we’re flexible and there for each other.
Doherty: Who’s your Icon of Impact?
Rutledge: Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always inspired me. As a female chemical engineer, I was in the minority of my college graduating class. I was often the only woman in the room, whether it was a lab, manufacturing plant, or leadership meeting. RBG rose to the top of a male-dominated field despite her initial resistance and has been an outspoken advocate for gender equality. She is a brilliant woman, and I admire her dedication, tenacity, and refusal to give up.