OPRF student shares vitamins with Africa

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By Ashley Lisenby

Digital Editor

Pitching a business plan in only five minutes in competition (with eight other startups) for a $50,000 prize sounds like high pressure. 

Henry Belcaster, a 17-year-old junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, was one of the young entrepreneurs at Catapult Incubator's Demo Day Pitch Event at the Harvard Innovation Lab on April 28, prepared to meet that challenge. 

Belcaster is the founder and CEO of a one-for-one business called VitaLives.

"We're basically the Tom's of vitamins," said Belcaster.

The business model is fairly simple: It's much like buying a pair of Tom's shoes. When a customer purchases one pair, another pair of shoes is donated to a child in need abroad. Similarly, Belcaster explains, when a customer purchases VitaLives vitamins in the U.S., vitamins are also shipped to a malnourished child elsewhere.

Between March 24 and May 1, the newly formed startup raised $8,526 — over the original goal of $8,000 — to pay for shipping, manufacturing, and initial production costs.

Thanks to "crowdfunded" donations, the first batch of VitaLives vitamins debuted on April 29.

Instead of partnering with established vitamin companies to distribute the children's multivitamin, Belcaster wanted to create a new brand.

He and his team of "free agents" — high school students from other parts of the country, whom he met at the Harvard Innovation Lab two summers ago — use the manufacturer Private Label Nutraceuticals in Georgia to produce the fruit flavored, sugar-free and gluten-free gummy vitamins. 

Beyond being influenced by the Tom's business model, Belcaster said his interest in innovation and the continent of Africa came from two sources: author and inventor William Kamkwamba and New York Times journalist and columnist Nicholas Kristoff.

When he was 12, the young entrepreneur met Kamkwamba and read his book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and was inspired to try to build his own windmill like the character in the book had done in order to bring electricity to his village in Malawi.

A few years after reading Kamkwamba's book, Belcaster read Kristoff's New York Times article, "World's Healthiest Food," published in 2010, in which the journalist recounted that birth defects of children in Honduras were due to the lack of vitamin B9, iodine and other nutrients in the mother at the beginning of her pregnancy.

"As the United States reorganizes its chaotic aid program, it might try promoting what just may be the world's most luscious food: micronutrients," wrote Kristoff at the end of his New York Times column.

The work of both men, perhaps unbeknownst to them, helped lay the groundwork to Belcaster's vision for VitaLives. 

His experience at the African Leadership Academy in the summer of 2013, the need in some African countries for micro-nutrients, and the apparent ease in setting up "distribution networks," are all reasons for his enthusiasm about Africa.

"We hope to spark economic growth and a more sustainable business model," said Belcaster.

The malnourished in this country, however, have not been forgotten.

"Because [the need] is less severe, it's not our premier focus," said Belcaster, citing Appalachia as an example of a location that could use the kind of services his business intends to provide.

While a trip to bring VitaLives to South Africa is scheduled for November 2014, Belcaster is looking to partner with organizations such as Feed America, Doctors Without Borders, and Vitamin Angels to spread VitaLives nationally as well as internationally. 

One of the perks, in fact, of being a $250 or a $500 donor is sponsoring a local or city-wide Vitamin "Drop," in which vitamins are distributed to area communities in need.

Belcaster also envisions VitaLives on the shelves of retail stores.

At $12 for a 90-count bottle of VitaLives, Flintstones Vitamins is the business' major competitor, Belcaster said. But he thinks his company has a leg up on the competition because of its socially conscious one-for-one business model.

The business has recently come under some scrutiny, however, for its name. VitaLives bears a too-close-for-comfort resemblance to another health supplement business, Vitalife. 

Belcaster said he and his team are talking with lawyers to resolve the matter.

At the moment, visions of vitamin-rich sugar plums may be dancing around Belcaster's head, but he is less sure of what path his life will take. 

The OPRF student is considering taking "a gap year" before college and has contemplated studying music, pre-medicine or business. 

"The best way to predict your future is to create it," said Belcaster, quoting a speaker he heard once. "There is so much freedom when you're young. The best time to do what you're doing is when you're young."

Contact:
Email: ashley@oakpark.com Twitter: @aadlisenby

Reader Comments

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Rellikson Rellika from Nairobi  

Posted: May 9th, 2014 3:59 PM

Hi Henry, am so proud of you. Continue being amazing, am gonna share this will ALA students.

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