About a year ago, Kevin Murphy, the former chief operating officer at Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., and his longtime colleague Jud Horner, his friend with the “Golden Gut,” took the helm at a startup called Wikifoods Inc. They found two dozen heavily-degreed scientists and engineers inventing cool things and hoping to commercialize cutting-edge food products from edible water bottles to inhalable vapors that boost energy.
“I said, ‘Let’s see your consumer research data,’ ” Murphy recalled. “And they looked at us like we were speaking Polish.”
This is the story of the evolution of a Kendall Square incubator into a consumer products company that sells frozen bonbons, and how the dreams of 20-something researchers and their investors meshed with the experience and practical know-how of Murphy and Horner. Today, Wikifoods’ frozen treats, named “perfectly free,” are sold in more than 150 Shaw’s and Star supermarkets, and the company officials expect to get their treats into 10,000 stores across the nation within three years.
Next month, the company moves to a new headquarters and factory in Hyde Park. Along with the staff of scientists, inventors, and engineers, the company will bring along a full-time intellectual property attorney who has a doctorate in molecular biology as well as extensive tatoos.
Success for Wikifoods now means leaving the whimsy of Kendall Square behind and focusing on selling frozen treats, $4.99 for a package of 8.
Reminiscent of the Japanese frozen dessert mochi, “perfectly free” is free of dairy, nuts, and most common allergens. The round frozen balls, each 35 calories or less, come in several flavors, with skins of salted caramel, cherry, blueberry, or cocoa wrapped around a vanilla center.
The flavored coatings were developed in the lab from sources such as seaweed and mushroom extracts. The cherry and blueberry treats are vegan: the caramel and cocoa flavors are not because their ingredients include gelatin, which is made from collagens obtained from bones, tendons, and other meat by-products.
Murphy, now the chief executive, was first hired by investors as a consultant for the product AeroShot, a coffee-flavored energy vapor Wikifoods wanted to bring to market. He didn’t think it could succeed in a market dominated by the ubiquitous “Five Hour Energy” drinks. Or as Murphy told the investors: “You can ride that horse a long time, but you’re not getting to paradise.”
Murphy, 65, a Harvard University graduate who got his MBA at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, left Ocean Spray in 2001, and became owner and partner of Woolf Associates, a full-service sports and entertainment management and marketing firm that represented professional athletes as well as dozens of companies such as EMC Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and Gillette Co.
Horner, whom Murphy brought on as senior vice president of sales and marketing at Wikifoods, left Ocean Spay in the mid-1990s and helped found a beverage company, Mauna La’i Tropicals in Braintree. Horner said the juice, in flavors like passion fruit, mango, and guava, tasted good, so he knew it could succeed and he invested.
Consumers agreed. The company had sales of more than $20 million in 1999, when it was sold to Cadbury Schweppes for an undisclosed sum, earning Horner the “Golden Gut” nickname.
After dissing Aeroshot and seeing a prototype of “perfectly free,” Murphy and Horner decided to focus Wikifoods’ efforts on the frozen treats. The two brought in consumer focus groups and educated staff on the grocery business, setting a goal to bring the frozen treats to market fast.
Both were thrilled to be in an environment free of corporate red tape and bureaucracy that can slow down product development.
“We’re making 20 decisions in a day that would have taken months” in a big corporation, Horner said.
Wikifoods investors include Flagship Ventures of Cambridge and Polaris Partners of Boston. Harry Wilcox, a general partner at Flagship, said his firm typically backs biotech, medical device, and renewable energy companies, but was intrigued by the food inventions developed by MIT scientist David Edwards. Flagship and Edwards, who remains on the board of directors, founded Wikifoods in September 2012.
Venture capital firms have invested a total of about $25 million in the company, Wilcox said. “There’s a real need for food without allergens,” he added. “Clean food.”
Wikifoods’ approximately 30 employees are getting ready for the move to Hyde Park, where renovations of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse building at 75 Sprague St. are nearly complete.
John Lamppa, Wikifoods’ chief technology officer, said it’s exciting to see the work of the lab make it to market and reach consumers. Another product developed in Wikifoods’ lab, a grape-shaped ball of pureed fruit, called NuFruit, will be tested in 40 area supermarkets this spring.
“The culture is shifting,” he said of the company. “We’ve grown up to some degree.”