The medicine aisle may be looking different in the coming months. A slew of new brands have been taking on the OTC industry, looking at how medicines can be made with “cleaner” ingredients: free of dyes, parabens, talc, and artificial colors, namely.
The latest brand to take on the regulated world of over-the-counter drugs is Welly. Started by the founder of Method cleaning products and Olly supplements, Eric Ryan, Welly is already dabbling in the space, by selling colorful design-forward band-aids and first-aid kits. But this month, they’ve launched a line of up of 14 everyday medicines for cold/flu, pain relief, digestion, and allergies to add to that collection.
Eric Ryan, a veteran entrepreneur, acknowledges that this startup may have a few more hurdles than his previous pursuits: the OTC industry is heavily regulated (and for understandable reason), manufacturers are less keen to work with startups, and innovation is, thus, a bit slower, he says. Plus, given his record with trying to make Method one of the more eco-friendly laundry detergents on the market, the packaging for Welly is plastic — largely due to regulations prohibiting them from using recycled materials, which isn’t ideal.
“It’s certainly not an easy space to innovate in. But when I walk down the medicine aisle, I can see that there’s a need for change,” he says from his office in northern California. “Anything that I start, I basically have the idea for a decade lingering in me, and this one was no different.”
But three years ago, just before the pandemic, Ryan with his co-founder, Doug Stukenborg, put the idea into action.
Welly, he hopes, will stir up the usual layout of the medicine aisle. Grouped together, the brand’s offering strays from the typical setup: by health issue, not by brand. Ryan hopes that by having all the products together, consumers can just reach for what they need without having to scour countless labels. Plus, Welly’s range is a more curated collection: the essentials, one could say. This is also to make the selection process for consumers easier.
“I personally found the medicine aisle hard to shop. There’s way too many choices. Every product is segmented into a million options, and you’re already not feeling well when you’re shopping here. So with this expansion into Welly Remedies, we want to be the one-stop for well care by offering complete healthcare solutions that are fun and easy to shop.”
Given that Ryan has launched Olly, a supplements company, there’s also a bit of wellness mixed in with OTC. Some of the products are geared towards immunity boosting or stress relief; but the bulk of the offering is tried-and-tested meds, which were further reviewed by a board of health practitioners the company consulted.
The general messaging of Welly and similar brands is that everyday meds can be made with fewer added ingredients, and thus be safer for consumption in the long-term. So why are not legacy brands adopting this approach?
Ryan says that it’s a matter of cost: “Unfortunately, it’s cheaper to do it the way we’ve been doing it so far.”
That places Welly, and similar “clean” medicine brands, in a pricier category. “However, I want people to know that we’re not doing this for profit,” he clarifies on their premium pricing.
Since Welly is targeting Millennials who have taken a greater interest in reducing unneeded chemicals from their lifestyles and wellness, Ryan is certain that the marginal price difference will not deter customers.
Plus, what about the added competition of similar companies? “It usually takes the efforts of a few companies to change a category. So I don’t worry too much about that. We saw that happen with Method as well. Activity in the category is actually a sign that it’s time for change.”
As far as sustainability, Ryan is trying to see what alternatives could work: glass was too heavy, he notes. And with aluminum, there were some safety and manufacturing challenges, he says. To use, post-consumer recycled plastics, a certain level of recycling infrastructure is needed, as well as regulations that must be met. But he’s not giving up: “As we prove this to be a viable business, making the packaging more sustainable is most certainly one of our top priorities as a certified B corporation.”