Stephen Manderson’s journey from MOBO Award-winning rapper Pro Green to pioneering wellness entrepreneur has been anything but plain sailing.
Since birth he’s been dogged by chronic digestive issues that surgery and a powerful concoction of drugs weren’t able to solve.
His medical record lists pyloric stenosis, gastritis, esophagitis and a hiatus hernia that left him with an all but entirely paralysed stomach until a mixture of probiotics, Kombucha, an antibiotic-free bone broth and regular exercise helped transform his fortunes.
That experience led to him launching Aguulp — a pioneering liquid supplement that aims to bridge the gap between the gut and mental health — with Co-Founder Kevin Godlington in 2020. However, he’s since had to overcome resistance in what he describes as a “stagnant” wellness industry.
“I don’t think I’m that welcome,” he tells Welltodo. “I’m fine with that because I’ve always enjoyed being disruptive.”
Despite the setbacks, Aguulp raised £300K in November to bolster investment from private equity that gave the company a pre-money valuation of £2 million with further fundraises on the horizon.
Here the 37-year-old talks about the lessons learned from breaking into the wellness scene, as well as revealing how a lifetime spent in pursuit of better health helped him realise that a healthy mind begins with a healthy gut.
On why Aguulp is no vanity project…..
Aguulp is my baby. I’ve probably done my 10,000 hours on this already. The amount of research and papers and studies I’ve read. I’m emotionally invested because it was born out of gut issues I’ve had since I was a kid, but also out of something that’s become a real passion.
All the work I’ve done around mental health advocacy led me to notice the better I took care of my gut health the better my head was. To take something from the moment of conception to original ingredient list to brand name to brand look and feel, and be this immersed in something is amazing. I’m not flogging someone else’s snake oil, it’s all me.
On launching a business amid a global pandemic…..
It wasn’t exactly part of the business strategy. But my co-founder Kevin Godlington is a relentless force and so was able to execute it. We had a really good valuation and were able to do that raise and overfund during a period which was a complete bloodbath as far as raising money. If we were in any other sector, apart from maybe food delivery, it would have been impossible to raise money.
On Aguulp’s reception…..
It’s gone really well. We’ve hit our first-quarter targets which were quite punchy. Our customer base has grown outside of who you’d expect to be interested in incredibly nutrient-dense liquid solutions, which is great. It means the educational part is working and people are starting to show an interest. For me, I didn’t care about any health supplements until I was into my 30s. I think that’s because you start to understand mortality. We have an obsession about extending life and life expectancy but there’s no point in living into old age if you don’t have quality of life.
On breaking into the wellness industry…..
We’ve been working on this for the best part of two years but we met a lot of resistance. There was more than one company in the UK that could have facilitated the making of these formulas but the willingness to do so just wasn’t there. There was no real foresight. No curiosity to see if it could work, where we could take it to. To meet Nutrivitality was really refreshing. They started out as SureScreen 25 years ago and began in forensics so their ability for analysis is incredible.
It led us to be first to market a gut test that looks at short-chain fatty acids instead of DNA, which is more indicative of gut health.
On the need to be disruptive…..
I don’t think I’m that welcome [in the wellness industry]. I’m fine with that because I’ve always enjoyed being disruptive. I don’t think there’s any point in doing things that are safe. If you don’t feel a little bit nervous about what you’re doing then you’re not pushing the envelope hard enough. I think it’s really important to do that, especially in an industry as stagnant as the wellness industry.
On Aguulp’s duty to educate consumers…..
We’re at a period of heightened awareness, especially with gut health, but not necessarily with understanding. It was really shocking to find out that most of the vitamins I had been taking throughout my life had literally been doing nothing. Most supplements only have 5-20% absorption and malabsorption leads to malnourishment. When we think about malnourishment we think of a lack of food. But it’s as much about eating poor quality food and your ability to absorb nutrients from them.
On the link between gut and brain health…..
It was a journey for me. I had a paralysed stomach, food was putrefying in my stomach and I didn’t want to have a gastric bypass because if I had the same complications as I had in the surgery before I would have died. So I wanted to find a way to treat myself holistically. As I began using probiotics like Symprove, drinking Kombucha, having antibiotic-free bone broth, I noticed that the better my gut felt the better my head felt.
I began looking into the link between gut health and mental health. It makes sense. Any time I’ve been stressed in my life it goes to my gut. Any time I’m elated, fancied someone, it’s always in your stomach, isn’t it? We have all of these phrases: gut feeling, bad taste in your mouth, bitter taste in your mouth, food for thought… all of these sayings came from somewhere. We understood all of these things long before we had the science to confirm them.
On the trend of celebrity-endorsed wellness brands…..
What I don’t like about celebrity involvement in wellness is it’s largely people promoting things they don’t really understand. There are people promoting laxatives for weight loss. It’s unhelpful. Wellness and wellbeing have kind of become dirty words and phrases at points.
I don’t like language like cheat meals. Why the f**k should it be considered cheating because I fancy a pizza? If I’m waking up and having pizza for breakfast, MacDonald’s for lunch and KFC for dinner there’s a problem. Well there’s either a problem or I’m stoned. But, there’s a lot of negative language used and that puts unnecessary pressure on people.
On how better nutrition can ease pressure on the NHS…..
Everyone is talking about how the NHS is under such great pressure and we need to support them. What, with a clap? I think the more sensible way to support the NHS would be to make better decisions in our own lives because prevention is always better than cure.
In the western world, largely, we are reactive. We wait until something goes wrong and then we use medicine, which often requires other medicine because of the side-effects. You can find yourself in a perpetual state of treatment. Whereas just a few little changes in your diet and routine can change everything and avoid or help your chances of ever having to go to the doctor.
On putting purpose ahead of profit…..
I have incredible admiration for brands like Form and Moju for what they do outside of trying to build a business and a profit. There’s genuine care for people’s health and wellbeing. We’re moving in a similar direction in that we want to re-wild forests in places that have suffered severe deforestation. I’d love to get a sachet of essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients into the hands of every kid in this country who is likely to be undernourished. As we grow I would love to do more on a societal level.
On advice for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps…..
Don’t follow in my footsteps. Be disruptive. Do something different. You’ve got to think what your motive is. Why do you want to do it? It’s about setting realistic goals and targets and working out the steps you have to take to get from A to beyond. I never had to think about EBITDAs and KPIs and five year projections before and there’s been a lot of firefighting. But while putting out those fires you have to not get distracted from your mission, your vision and your values.
On his long term mission…..
The long term mission is to grow, to expand, to move into other territories, to on board with retailers. The broader our reach, the more we can educate. Aguulp for Gut has been our best seller by far and that’s indicative of where there is market growth and awareness. People are increasingly realising how integral gut health is to overall health, especially the link with Alzheimer’s.
To be in the realm of something which could have any positive effect, however major or mild, on preventing any chronic condition is amazing. I wouldn’t want to go through what I’ve gone through twice, but to come out the other side of it and take what I’ve learned from that and use it to help other people is amazing.