Chicago-based Vital Proteins plans big international expansion as beauty-seekers clamor for collagen



When Kurt Seidensticker launched Vital Proteins, a brand of collagen products, he was a runner in his late forties seeking a cure for achy knees.



a group of people sitting at a table: Elidia Funes, a filler operator, tops off a canister of product Oct. 1, 2020, at the Vital Proteins plant in Franklin Park. Vital Proteins plans to expand its product line and enter a dozen international markets by the end of next year.


© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Elidia Funes, a filler operator, tops off a canister of product Oct. 1, 2020, at the Vital Proteins plant in Franklin Park. Vital Proteins plans to expand its product line and enter a dozen international markets by the end of next year.

Seven years later, Chicago-based Vital Proteins has become a powerhouse wellness brand, expecting to pull in more than $250 million in revenue this year as it embarks on a robust international expansion amid a collagen boom driven by the quest for glowing hair and skin.

Vital Proteins, headquartered in Chicago’s Fulton Market District with a manufacturing facility in suburban Franklin Park, in June agreed to sell a majority stake in the company to Nestle Health Science, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swiss food giant, for an undisclosed sum.



a group of people in a room: Lilia Garcia loads a six-pack of canisters onto a pallet Oct. 1, 2020, at the Vital Proteins manufacturing facility in Franklin Park. In June Vital Proteins agreed to sell a majority stake in the company to Nestle Health Science, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swiss food giant.


© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Lilia Garcia loads a six-pack of canisters onto a pallet Oct. 1, 2020, at the Vital Proteins manufacturing facility in Franklin Park. In June Vital Proteins agreed to sell a majority stake in the company to Nestle Health Science, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swiss food giant.

Vital Proteins continues to operate independently, and with Nestle’s resources plans to expand its product line and be in more than a dozen international markets by the end of next year.

“There are big challenges with international, every country’s regulatory process is unique,” said Seidensticker, 55, who lives in Chicago and continues as CEO. “Nestle has that footprint.”

Vital Proteins has grown fast in the U.S., where its powders, beverages, nutrition bars and other products fill shelves at most major retailers. Its strongest markets include its hometown of Chicago as well as wellness-minded communities like New York City, Colorado and Los Angeles, where it has a distribution center, Seidensticker said.



a person wearing a costume: Reyna Alcala checks labels on the high speed canister line at Vital Proteins on Oct. 1, 2020 in Franklin Park. Workers were making Vital Proteins' Collagen Peptides product. Vital Proteins i headquartered in Fulton Market.


© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Reyna Alcala checks labels on the high speed canister line at Vital Proteins on Oct. 1, 2020 in Franklin Park. Workers were making Vital Proteins’ Collagen Peptides product. Vital Proteins i headquartered in Fulton Market.

The company has launched its products in Canada, the UK and China and next year plans to enter France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

Vital Proteins, which employs about 450 people, expects revenues to grow 80% next year, after rising 66% from $150 million last year, Seidensticker said.

With slick marketing and a bevy of celebrity and influencer endorsements, Vital Proteins has positioned itself as a leader in collagen products as the supplement gains health-seeking followers across the globe.

The global collagen market is forecast to reach nearly $7 billion in 2027, up from $4.7 billion this year, according to a Grand View Research report. Though health care is the largest user of collagen, which helps encourage bone development, the highest growth is expected to be in food and beverages that tout its anti-aging properties.



The high speed canister line operates at Vital Proteins in Franklin Park.


© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
The high speed canister line operates at Vital Proteins in Franklin Park.

Collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, is the main structural component in skin, bones, hair, nails, ligaments and other connective tissues. Collagen production declines naturally as people age, starting in the mid-20s, as well as a result of sun exposure or smoking.



a person wearing a costume: Maria Medina loads a six-pack of product onto a pallet at Vital Proteins, Oct. 1, 2020, in Franklin Park.


© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Maria Medina loads a six-pack of product onto a pallet at Vital Proteins, Oct. 1, 2020, in Franklin Park.

Collagen sold for supplementation is primarily sourced from cows, but marine-based collagen, which has higher absorption and bioavailability — and a higher price tag — is expected to grow fastest over the next few years, according to the Grand View Research report.

Research into the effectiveness of ingesting collagen has suggested it is effective and safe, though there have not been many rigorous, independent studies. The Journal of Drugs in Dermatology last year published a systematic review of the literature that identified 11 randomized, placebo-controlled trials on human subjects, with a total of just 805 patients.

The review concluded that oral collagen supplements help increase skin elasticity and hydration and have promising implications for skin aging, with no adverse events. But it called for further studies to determine optimal dosing and its use against other ailments.

“We don’t have a lot of data,” said Kristin Gustashaw, an advanced clinical dietitian at Rush University Medical Center.

Most clients who ask Gustashaw about taking collagen are interested in improving their skin, though some want to take it for gut health. She isn’t opposed to it, but encourages people to improve their overall diets rather than look for a quick fix.

“If you want to add collagen protein in moderation to a diet already filled with great sources of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, that’s something to consider,” said Gustashaw, who recommends salmon, avocado, nuts and seeds to nourish skin and the immune system. “But just adding collagen protein to an already unhealthy diet won’t get you the results you hope for.”

Gustashaw cautions clients to ask about drug interactions and to introduce collagen slowly into their diets. She said to stick to the proper dosing, as consuming too much protein can cause dehydration and other problems.

In general, daily protein intake should not exceed .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is about 75 grams per day for a 150-pound person, Gustashaw said. She advises against consuming more than 30 grams of protein in one sitting.

Vital Proteins was at the vanguard of the collagen movement when it introduced powdered collagen peptides, made from cow hides, that can be mixed into hot and cold beverages or used in cooking.

It has since launched some 150 products, including blackberry hibiscus collagen water, peanut butter chocolate collagen bars, and pre- and post-workout powders that combine collagen with other muscle-building ingredients. Its collagen is sourced either from grass-fed, pasture-raised Brazilian bovine hides or wild-caught white fish off the coast of Alaska. It has vegan products that don’t contain collagen but have ingredients meant to boost the body’s production of it.

The original $25 tub of powder, which remains Vital Proteins’ most popular product, contains 20 grams of collagen per two-scoop serving — there are 28 servings — while the beverages contain 10 grams in a bottle. A calculator on the company website recommends optimal collagen dosages based on age and weight.

Though the market has become crowded with competitors, Seidensticker said Vital Proteins has an advantage as the “category creator.” Not only has it secured shelf space but also was early in signing up celebrities and fashion influencers, including Jennifer Aniston and former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo, to push the brand.

Kourtney Kardashian, when launching her lifestyle brand Poosh last year, partnered with Vital Proteins to create co-branded collagen powders, including Matcha Latte Collagen Vibes and the pre-bed Pink Moon Milk, which contains melatonin.

Since 2017 Vital Proteins has been the “official collagen of the Chicago Cubs” and is now in “every professional sports team’s clubhouse,” Seidensticker said. The Cubs’ nutritionist had introduced the product to the team for injury reduction in spring of 2016, he said. That year they won the World Series.

Seidensticker, who grew up in Wheaton and raised his family in Glenview, started researching collagen during summer of 2012, when he noticed his joints were in pain after going for runs. Unwilling to hang up his running shoes, he consulted his daughter, who at the time was a medical student at the University of Chicago, and she sent him research on possible root causes.

Seidensticker, who had begun his career as an aerospace engineer for NASA and worked at Motorola, Northern Trust and numerous other large companies, as well as on entrepreneurial endeavors, set out to determine how to regrow collagen in his joints, focusing on creating a water-soluble powder. While there were collagen tablets on the market at the time, at 375 mg per pill they weren’t a user-friendly way to get the 20 to 40 grams daily he believed he needed.

Vital Proteins started manufacturing its powder in 2013, and the company “was profitable from Day 1,” Seidensticker said. He rented a 3,400-square-foot facility in Glenview for two years before moving manufacturing to a 15,000-square-foot facility in Elk Grove Village and then to the 180,000-square-foot plant in Franklin Park in 2018.

After running the business out of a WeWork co-working space and other temporary offices, Seidensticker last year moved the corporate office into its 40,000-square-foot space, designed to evoke California, a block from Google’s Midwest headquarters.

He self-funded the company until 2017, when he received $19 million in venture capital from New York-based CAVU Venture Partners, which invests in health-focused food and beverage brands.

Seidensticker plans to keep Vital Proteins in Chicago, a major transportation hub with a deep talent pool for marketing, sales, warehousing and distribution of consumer packaged goods. As the birthplace of insurgent food brands including RXBar and Simple Mills, it is also a hub for innovation, he said.

Vital Proteins will explore new products that capitalize on its partnership with Nestle, perhaps in coffee or coffee creamer.

The pandemic, meanwhile, has only strengthened demand.

“People had more time on their hands,” Seidensticker said. “They started focusing on their health.”

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