Whey cool: BadgerMax’s protein and sports drinks have a distinct Wisconsin flavor

When former UW President Charles Van Hise first promoted the Wisconsin Idea at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a good bet he wasn’t thinking about delicious, fruity, protein-packed sports drinks, but that doesn’t mean the university’s unique contribution to public life hasn’t taken some, shall we say, interesting turns.

Traditionally, the Wisconsin Idea has had a more robust influence on political life than the business world, but in recent years, the UW has shown a bit more willingness to forge partnerships with private enterprise.

Where some may have once seen a Cold War brewing between academia and the business community, there’s now something approaching warm feeling. One of the latest examples is BadgerMax, a brand of sports drinks, protein drinks, and premium spring water that has drawn considerable support from the university in both its developmental and marketing phases.

“The goal is to generate enough revenue for the athletic department so they don’t ever have to worry about rebidding the contract out.” — Brandon Duck, BadgerMax

The story begins back in the early ’90s, when the university originally came out with BadgerMax, a vitamin water that launched before vitamin waters really became popular. For various reasons, the effort faltered, but Andrew Berns, a former UW rower, remembered the product. A classmate of Brandon Duck in the UW’s MBA program, Berns thought the product was ripe for a relaunch, and the two set out to create a new line of sports drinks under the BadgerMax name.

“So Andrew and I have spent the last two and a half years kind of building up a business plan for this, and admittedly it has grown much faster than I had anticipated,” said Duck.

That may be an understatement. Thanks to several boosts from the UW and the state of Wisconsin, BadgerMax is poised to storm past the competition like James White running around a nose tackle.

BadgerMax was recently named the exclusive sports drink, protein recovery drink, and bottled water provider of UW Athletics. The company’s Protein Boost is enhanced with 12 grams of protein sourced from Wisconsin dairy. Its sports drink (without the dairy component) comes in five varieties — Fruit Punch, Grape, Blue Torrent (blue raspberry), Zero-Calorie Fruit Punch, and Zero-Calorie Grape. In addition, the company is providing a high-pH bottled spring water that’s sourced from Wisconsin’s north woods.

But the UW’s contribution to Duck and Berns’ company wasn’t limited to the leg up the athletic department gave the duo. The UW’s Center for Dairy Research was instrumental in getting their Protein Boost drink off the ground.

“We identified a need through the athletic department,” said Duck. “They had a product they were providing to the athletes that was kind of the same thing. It’s a protein-enhanced sports drink, basically, but it had artificial coloring in it. So because it had the artificial flavoring, because it was made with certain ingredients, it left a really bad aftertaste in your mouth. So the athletes would get it cold and they would drink a couple of sips of it, and as they were lifting weights, it would sit on the floor or sit on the shelves and get warm. And as soon as it got warm it was almost unbearable to drink, so then you’re wasting a lot of it.”

Recipe for success

Since coaches and trainers emphasize consuming a gram of protein for every pound of body weight, said Duck, providing a palatable protein drink was vital to those athletes’ success.

So Duck and Berner set to work on doing just that, hoping to find a whey-based product that people could chug like juice.

That turned out to be a bigger challenge than they anticipated.

“When we started doing this, we ended up going to several different companies throughout the state to try to get this done, and we contracted with them to come up with a formula, and nobody was able to do it,” said Duck. “So finally we gave up and we actually went out of state. We went to Illinois, to a flavor house called Imbibe, which provides all the major beverage companies with flavoring and coloring. And they gave it a shot, and they couldn’t do it either, and they recommended that we come back to Wisconsin and go to the Center for Dairy Research, and once we did, it was beautiful.

“The price they charge to help with some of this stuff is very reasonable for what they do compared to private industry, and what they charge and what they were able to do for us is light years apart.”

If all that weren’t enough, BadgerMax has also been certified by the state as a Qualified New Business Venture, a designation that gives investors in the company a tax credit equal to 25% of the amount they invest.

Of course, BadgerMax’s relationship with the university is hardly a one-way street. Duck and Berns are giving back plenty. The university, which currently owns the BadgerMax trademark, has a revenue-sharing agreement with the duo, and Duck and Berns have exclusive rights to use the trademark indefinitely.

At the same time, the entrepreneurs are helping out the athletic department while contributing to the state’s signature industry.

“In [business school], we talk about the triple bottom line all the time,” said Duck. “So you have the focus not just on pure profit, but you’re also giving back to the community, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to build. And it ends up, I think, going further than that in this case. Not only are we helping athletics, but we’re giving the university a product way cheaper than they were ever able to buy before from many of the large vendors.”

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Duck said he’d like to work with other universities in the state, as well as with high schools.

“We’re working on that program right now,” said Duck. “We’re hoping we’re able to offer these products, particularly the Protein Boost, to high school athletics, because it’s all natural, it’s got protein, and every football coach and basketball coach that we’ve talked to who have kids who are lifting weights, who are working out, they can’t stop those kids from drinking those energy drinks.”

Badger pride

Currently, BadgerMax has a distribution contract with Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and the drink is starting to see more distribution throughout state grocery stores and convenience stores. Duck says they’ve already talked to the Center for Dairy Research about creating new products, but first they have to focus on making sure the business is sustainable. And if there’s more than a little Badger pride tied up in that effort, that’s all the better.

“It’s amazing how many Badger fans there are in this state,” said Duck, “and when you start talking to people about what we’re doing, everybody wants to find a way in which they can lend a hand, and so it’s been a really great experience.

“It’s been a mad dash here at the end, and we still have quite a bit of ways to go to get it to be sustainable, but that’s the goal. The goal is to make it sustainable. The goal is to generate enough revenue for the athletic department so they don’t ever have to worry about rebidding the contract out, because there’s no way Coke or Pepsi or anyone else will ever want to bid on the contract. So that’s really the beauty of it.”

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