Belfast business EquiNutritive has developed natural supplements for equine health that are seeing growing global demand.
For EquiNutritive founder Alexandra Frazer a series of happy coincidences have led her to a point where her Belfast-based business is helping to relieve joint pain for horses, dogs and most recently camels in the Middle East.
The Australian native who has family in Northern Ireland came to Belfast to study at Queen’s University but ended up starting a business instead.
“Word-of-mouth was huge for us and that has been the key driver of our scaling story”
EquiNutritive is just one of a compelling community of start-ups that have taken part in various programmes run by the Catalyst Innovation Hub in Belfast.
Frazer explained that her love of horses led her into the entrepreneurial world. “I had come to Northern Ireland in early January 2014 and had plans to start at Queen’s in September. But by that point things were already going in the direction of the business so I deferred it. And I’ve been neck deep in the business ever since.”
A gut feeling
A nutritionist and equine scientist, she was admittedly obsessed with equine gut health and had spent 15 years prior to starting EquiNutritive owning, retraining and loving a herd of ex-racehorses.
She discovered by creating equine health formulas entirely from natural ingredients but combined with scientific methods, she could help relieve health problems in horses from joint pain to calming nerves and more.
Frazer has built an equally passionate team around her and sub-contracts the manufacturing of the health supplements to a manufacturer in the Republic of Ireland.
“I suppose deep down in the recesses of my mind I was always entrepreneurial. But I am a scientist and I had no business background so I was flying blind essentially. In those early days there was a lot of muddling through, especially because I was a sole founder and it was just myself for about a year and a half.”
Frazer employed her natural entrepreneurial instincts to good effect by availing of every grant and business course she could find. A business mentor helped her put together a strong business plan and find affordable office and warehousing space.
By 2017 the business had taken off and EquiNutritive was able to move to a bigger premises.
“I bootstrapped the business in the early days and joined every grant programme I could avail of and fortunately there were many that were readily available here in Northern Ireland. I found that there was a lot of support across the board.
“I got involved with Catalyst back in 2015 as part of their INVENT programme and that opened a lot of doors and led me down the route of doing the Springboard accelerator programme.”
INVENT is an annual competition that celebrates Northern Ireland’s most exciting innovators and entrepreneurs. Springboard is a flexible, personalised mentoring programme for entrepreneurs who are ready to scale their start-up and raise investment.
Currently more than 900 entrepreneurs are working with Catalyst across various programmes. Some 2,700 tech professionals work between Derry and Belfast and a community of 570 business mentors and experts are collaborating with start-ups and scale-ups.
EquiNutritive went from strength-to-strength and by 2019 two private investors came on board to acquire a majority stake in the business, retaining Frazer as managing director and founder.
“It was really nice timing for me and I had been running the business on my own for a few years so it was nice to have investors come aboard to back the business.”
From the horse’s mouth
A key element in the success of EquiNutritive was Frazer’s membership of the horsing community and in the early days and right to this day, word-of-mouth was critical.
“Word-of-mouth was huge for us and that has been the key driver of our scaling story. The horse market is quite a sceptical market because quite rightly for horse owners their animals’ health is paramount. So they are quite discerning shoppers and trust is very driven by the opinions of their peers, so in the early day creating that bedrock of customers who would tell their friends about the product was key.
“Another thing that is quite unique to us it that we sell purely online, direct-to-consumer, rather than through retailers. That was a strategic move on our part because being able to build relationships a and communicate with our customers was essential. So we’ve been able to build our business in an organic and intimate way.
“We know a lot about our customers, what they are doing with their horses and why they are buying our products.”
The success and learnings from the equine business also led to the business creating a supplement product for dogs and the business is actively looking at opportunities in the Middle East. There’s a lot of opportunities for us in the Middle east for horses but there is also a very serious camel breeding and racing scene and that could be a really opportune sector.”
EquiNutritive’s prime markets are the UK and Ireland as well as markets within Europe. But the US market in particular is a key objective for Frazer and her team. She said that to take on the US means ensuring sufficient contract manufacturing capacity as FDA clearance and the plan is to enter that market this year.
“Our plan is to sell into the US in the same way we do here, online and direct to the customer.”
Frazer said the support of Catalyst in the form of the INVENT and Springboard programmes has been essential to EquiNutritive’s growth.
“I wasn’t a business person before I started EquiNutritive. But Catalyst allowed me to start to focus on doing something really big.”