Tespo, With a New Office in Detroit, Offers “the Keurig of Vitamins”
Ted Mills spent the first part of his career in finance, eventually starting a investment fund for Manoj Bhargava, the Michigan-based founder of 5 Hour Energy, in 2008. After five years in that role, Mills says it was time to spread his wings.
He wanted to bring high-quality supplements to customers’ homes in liquid format, because he says 40 percent of the population is averse to swallowing pills. “I looked at the supplements industry and I was fascinated,” he explains. “It was so fragmented, and product development was archaic.”
He saw the convergence of a few trends shaping the market: ingredient transparency, direct-to-consumer sales, and personalization, all of which inspired him to start a company called Tespo, based in Plymouth, MI, in 2017.
“There were already supplements [that addressed these trends], but they weren’t simple to take and they weren’t liquid,” Mills says. Shipping liquid vitamins through the supply chain also presented problems, he adds.
To solve that issue, he created powder supplements contained in pods, and a Keurig-like dispenser that could add water to deliver them in liquid form. “I should have failed, and I almost did,” he recalls. “But people kept reaching out and saying, ‘This is really cool, but can you do this or that?’”
It wasn’t long, Mills says, before the supplement industry also took note of the pods and began contacting the company, an experience he found “amazing,” but also overwhelming.
However, the interest from industry led Tespo to raise a Series A funding round for an undisclosed amount. Mills says he can’t disclose his investors, but he describes one of Tespo’s backers as a leader in the industry. “They have thousands on staff, but they found us innovative and strategic,” he adds.
Tespo used the new investment capital to “reinvent everything” and launch a new-and-improved dispenser called Tespo Connect, which is currently being sold on an invitation-only basis until a public rollout happens later this year. The company also decided to branch out into personalized pods.
Customers can go online to the company’s website and take a quiz that asks questions to determine the person’s age, gender, medical conditions, activity level, and medicines being taken. Tespo will then recommend a supplement blend based on the results. It also sells pre-made blends such as vitamins for women, men, and children, and formulas to improve energy and sleep.
Because it’s connected to WiFi, the dispenser can communicate with an accompanying app to help people with compliance and tracking. Customers can also earn 10 cents for each shot dispensed from the Tespo Connect, which they can then redeem in the Tespo store.
“We’re the only company in the supplement industry to have ears in the home,” Mills says, referring to the Tespo Connect. “We’re building a data feed loop—it’s the ultimate personalization. Our view of the future? The only thing that matters is what happens to you.”
For Mills, vitamins and a patent-pending dispenser are only the beginning. He envisions building a version of the system for pharmaceutical customers, that could be linked to a person’s thumbprint to prevent misuse, and could ping caregivers if the patient starts skipping doses.
Tespo, with 20 employees, is beginning to raise a Series B funding round and in May, it will start offering a DNA test kit that Mills says will help the company do more in-depth product personalization. Also in the future plans: Inviting other brands to supply pods for use with the Tespo dispenser.
Tespo recently opened an “innovation hub” in downtown Detroit, and Mills hopes to open an automated manufacturing plant in the Motor City in the future.
“Even two years ago, I didn’t quite believe the resurgence was real,” Mills admits. “But now, you go down there and the hills have been climbed and the benefits have been realized. In terms of [talent] recruitment, it’s a really cool environment, and we want to be part of it.”