Zack Pennington of US Chia and John Seymour of Roundstone planting here in Kentucky.
Zack Pennington of US Chia and John Seymour of Roundstone planting here in Kentucky. (photos courtesy of US Chia)

One of the most “decorated” startups in Louisville’s ecosystem has rebranded and is now fundraising in anticipation of getting product on the market this fall. KY Chia is now US Chia.

US Chia will grow and distribute US-grown chia seeds for equine nutritional needs. Chia seeds contain the greatest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids of any seed and twice as much fiber as wheat and oats. Chia is high in protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium and contains the full spectrum of amino acids.

As a nutritional supplement, two ounces of chia seeds can be added to a horse’s daily diet. That’s five or six pounds of chia seeds a month per horse. US Chia will sell the seeds in 5, 10, 25 and 50-pound increments and will charge approximately $9 a pound, shipped.

KY Chia has supported its own development (including a full-time CEO, Zack Pennington) over the past year with its winnings from various business plan competitions.

US-Chia-Logo-SquareOver the past year or so KY Chia won:

  • First Place at Idea State U, hosted by Kentucky’s Cabinet for Economic Development, and open only to teams enrolled in a public Kentucky university.
  • First place in a Venture Shark round at Rice University Business Plan competition and best tradeshow booth.
  • Second place and $10K at the 2012 Stu Clark Investment Competition in Manitoba, Canada.
  • First place at the University of Cincinnati Spirit of Enterprise Graduate Business Plan Competition, winning the Cincom Systems $10,000 Champion Award and an automatic invitation to the 2012 Venture Labs Investment Competition.
  • First place at the Ballard Morton Business Plan Competition at the University of Louisville.

Pennington and co-founders Joanna Cruz, Scott Serdoz and Keith Starling met at the University of Louisville MBA in Entrepreneurship program. Serdoz is the Plant Genetics Laboratory manager at the University of Kentucky, where the chia seeds were developed.

Winnings from the various competitions allowed the company to license the technology from UK and begin development.

For the past year or so, the US Chia team has been doing market research and making connections in the equine industry. “There’s not much more we could do at this point to make the company better without sales,” says Pennington.

Zack Pennington and chia
Zack Pennington and chia

This spring, farmers in Arizona grew the company’s initial crop and harvested hundreds of pounds of seeds. The plant is frost sensitive, so southern Arizona was one of the few places the seeds could be cultivated in January. There’s approximately a 120-day growth cycle for the plants, which were harvested in June.

This month the seeds grown in Arizona were planted in Upton, KY. US Chia will bring the seeds from that planting to market. The yield, of course, will depend on conditions (in case you’re wondering, all this rain has been good for the chia).

“It’s a new plant for the farmers we’re working with,” says Pennington. “So there are experiential unknowns.”

Roundstone Native Seed in Upton is the farm they’re working with. Eventually, Roundstone will also package, store and ship the product, leaving the US Chia team free from worry about operation and supply chains so they can concentrate on sales.

Roundstone is “sensitive to startups,” says Joanna Cruz. “They understand how startups are different.”

“And they’re giving us a lot of help,” adds Pennington.

The KY Chia team decided to change the name of the business to US Chia to acknowledge that they may need to continue to produce in several regions. But as their competition is primarily chia seeds from South America and Australia, “US” is an important part of its brand identity.

“People care about where their food is coming from,” says Cruz. “Why wouldn’t they care where their horse’s food comes from?”

Pennington is currently updating the company’s web presence with the new branding and logo. At the new site, customers will be able to pre-order and reserve seeds. “If you get customers involved early it makes them feel like they’re part of something,” says Pennington.

The equine industry is tight-knit, so courting key influencers like trainers, vets and nutritionists, is critical. “If we can make a smaller group happy,” says Pennington, “they can lead the way and bring people into the fold.”

Chia ready to be harvested
Chia ready to be harvested

US Chia started fundraising on July 3.

“Now we’re ready,” says Pennington. “We had a lot to get done before we were ready to do outside funding. The competition winnings got us to the point where raising money is actually possible.”

The team is looking to raise $250,000 to support production costs, sales personnel and marketing. They’re hoping to find local Kentucky investors and/or industry experts.

“We want smart money on our team,” says Pennington. “We want to pick the right people who understand the risk profile of agriculture.”

Pennington and Cruz say that while they’re passionate about nutrition, the equine industry wasn’t one they were familiar with before they founded the company. For them, what attracted them to this particular business was what they saw as an excellent problem-solution fit.

Some people are lifelong industry people, explains Pennington, “But if you’re an entrepreneur, you get excited about solving problems.”

The 103-acres of seeds in Upton will be harvested some time in October.