All the Elements of a Great Idea

All the Elements of a Great Idea

published in the Chicago Sun-Times

Jonathan Miller’s wife, Jennifer, really hates raisins in her protein bars.

They’re not really Jonathan’s thing, either. He prefers dried cherries. He also wants his bar to get him going in the morning, give him sustained energy, pack a lot of fiber and offer enough protein to tide him over till lunch.

But he wasn’t finding anything like that on the shelves, so he started making his own. He can have some made for you, too, via Element Bars—custom protein bars. Thanks to a nifty online interface, users can drag and drop their favorite ingredients into a little bundle of personalized goodness and have it shipped to their homes. You can get your whey your way.

The concept, which went live this fall, started as a series of frustrations and coincidences.

“I didn’t even conceive of it as a business,” says Jonathan Miller. “If you go to any grocery store basically, there’s probably a half-aisle now of protein bars. They come in every shape and variety. I would literally hold up two of the protein bars and say, Well this one is high protein, but this one is high fiber. Or this one has raisins, but I hate raisins, right? So I was literally walking around, stumbling around these aisles trying to find a bar that was right for me.”

And when he had no luck, “I just started baking my own protein bars for myself,” Miller says.

In a parallel universe, Maria Sutanto, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago in molecular metabolism and nutrition, was having the same idea. She loves cooking and running and began baking her own protein bars to meet her needs. Sutanto was working on the molecular relationship between obesity and Type 2 diabetes when she met Jennifer Miller, who was doing her fellowship in pediatric endocrinology at the University of Chicago.

Last December, Jennifer introduced Maria to Jonathan, who already had one entrepreneurial venture under his belt in, a college textbook price aggregator, and was studying for his MBA at Kellogg. There, Jonathan Miller had met Jonathan Kelley, who has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and was studying new product development at Northwestern University in the new MS Engineering Design and Innovation program.

Maria brought the nutritional expertise. Jonathan Kelley pitched in on operations and website functionality. Jonathan Miller shaped it into a business. And Element Bars was born.

Its design lets you achieve your nutritional goal, whatever that might be. And it tells you how to get there if you aren’t sure.

You can start with a quiz that assesses your lifestyle, though it’s really just for fun. It only allows one choice from each list—you can’t choose weights and cardio as fitness pursuits, for example. But you can build a bar that accommodates both.

Or you can build a bar that packs a wallop for your immune system. Or improves your gastrointestinal function. Or boosts your brainpower. Ingredients are categorized by one of five “bar powers.” Say you choose “heart health.” The first page gives a CliffsNotes explanation of the cardiovascular system. Mousing over specific ingredients that fall into this category brings up a detailed description of how each benefits your body. (Ingredients can pop up in multiple categories, of course: Apricots contain antioxidant vitamins and heart-healthy minerals.)

Then you begin with one of four cores—oaty, for example. Drag it into a box, and you’ll see the calories and nutritional information in a chart to the side that mimics food-packaging labels. You can add and remove ingredients—nuts, fruits, sweeteners, and “boosts” such as whey protein or flaxseed—and watch the nutritional information change. Options abound: Some ingredients are organic. A slider bar lets you adjust protein. The chewy core comes in peanut or almond butter.

You can fit 6 oz. of ingredients (generally five items) into a bar. “If you add extra mix-ins, you’re just going to get less almonds or walnuts or the rest of them,” Jonathan Miller says. “But we’re going to warn you, you’re only going to have, you know, an ounce of almonds in your bars.”

The site provides other warnings. The agave syrup, for instance, does not hang together with the oaty core. Miller recognizes, however, that not every combination can be accounted for. “We haven’t figured out every single permutation, but we’re going to try to warn you to the best of our ability based on all of our experience making these bars before you put it together in a bar so you get a tasty bar the first time.”

But what if you discover you hate flaxseed more than Jennifer hates raisins? It’s an investment: Each bar is a $3, with a minimum order of 12. Miller offers a taste guarantee. “If you make a bar and you don’t like the bar, we’re going to make it right for you,” Miller says. “We want to make sure people are comfortable with experimenting.” For timid souls, there are some “popular bar” choices.

A partnership with TipsyCake in Humboldt Park makes Element Bars’ small-batch operation possible. TipsyCake frosts their elaborate confections Wednesday-Friday, leaving their ovens and bakers available to make bars those days.

But the operation could grow. Miller hopes to recognize economies of scale from his popular bars. Thus far a custom-nutrition store in Las Vegas has expressed interest, and Jennifer Miller’s favorite, the “Hungry for Health” bar, was created in conjunction with the Center for Advancement in Cancer Education.

“We’re not interested in super-large contracts yet,” Jonathan Miller said. “The people who are health-conscious aren’t buying a last-minute Element Bar at 7-Eleven. These people care what they put in their body, they’re active planners about their nutrition and they’re kind of planning ahead. So in that sense, some mass distribution like that just doesn’t make sense for us.

“But there are places where we’d sell it in a retail location.”

Other developments are in the works. Sutanto is considering adding antioxidant-rich goji berries to the lineup, if consumer demand and operational factors allow. And just as in high school, what’s popular may change: in fact, after you order, you can submit your own creation to the “popular bar” lineup for votes.

Just watch out for those raisins.

Custom bars are $3 each; popular bars are $2.50, with a minimum order of 12 of one kind. (A pre-selected variety pack offers three each of four popular bars.) Shipping is $5 for 12 bars; $10 for 24 or more bars via U.S. Postal Service. No preservatives are used, so bars should be eaten within two months.