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The GU Energy Labs Story: Created For Athletes By Athletes

The original energy gel is still the industry's most recognizable brand.

The original energy gel is still the industry’s most recognizable brand. 

It’s highly unlikely you’ll go to a race or an expo without spotting the GU logo. GU gels, chewables and drinks have become one of the most widely recognized fuel brands in the sports industry with more than 30 flavors in the lineup to satisfy their core endurance market.

The GU Energy Labs story dates back to the 90s when founder William Vaughn, a runner and biochemist, was experimenting with carbs in gel form, coincidentally around the same time when he working on one of the first energy bars.  Vaughn became inspired to create a gel after his daughter, Laura, was competing in the Western States 100 ultra race and struggled with gastrointestinal distress. Years later, the GU gel was born.

RELATED: Everything You Need To Know About Energy Gels

At a time when no other energy gel existed, the first GU gel hit the shelves in 1994 in Chocolate Outrage, Orange Burst and Vanilla Bean – they’re most popular flavor to date.

We caught up with William’s son and current GU Energy Labs president, Brian Vaughn, an avid cyclist, on his thoughts with the brand and what we can expect from GU in the future. How was the first gel received by the public?

Brian Vaughn: Enthusiastically.  Remember, there was no such thing as an energy gel at the time.  Endurance athletes had early-stage energy bars to eat, which gave convenience, but also unnecessary fat, fiber and protein.  The gel form, on the other hand, simply didn’t exist.  So when we created a unique blend of complex and simple carbohydrates, essential amino acids, lactic acid buffers, and antioxidants in a tasty, convenient package, it found immediate adoption in the endurance world. Gels transport energy to working muscles within minutes without causing any stomach distress.

What inspires the team to develop new flavors?

Our new products and flavors are influenced by our own athletic endeavors and those of our customers. For instance, I’m an avid endurance mountain bike race who recently competed in the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, which gave me some pretty strong ideas for new product directions.  My sister, Laura, is a top-level ultrarunner and was utterly key to not only the development of energy gels, but our direction as a company.  Everything is influenced by the needs of our athletes.  Everything we do focuses on a simple question: how can we, through our products, best support and enhance the performance of athletes? Then beyond that performance factor, we obsess over the taste profiles.  Mandarin Orange GU gel is a good example.  It supplanted one of our original flavors, Orange Burst, which was a good flavor, but really only hit two flavor notes.  Mandarin Orange has a sophisticated, really authentic flavor.  You can just taste a hint of fresh/bitter rind, like you would with a ripe, tasty mandarin orange.  Did I mention we’re obsessive about flavors?

Describe the GU consumer.

Our very core market consists of extreme endurance athletes who live to compete in their sports.  They are highly brand-involved consumers of sports products who seek products that improve performance by providing sustained energy and improving recovery time.  Their relentless desire to improve performance leads them to pursue sporting goals, such as competing in elite endurance competitions.  But we also appeal to the broader range of athletes, both competitive and recreational, who simply want to enable their peak training and performance under every circumstance.  We’re seeing an increase in the adoption of GU products among team sports (like the Brazilian national soccer team), which is an interesting development.  We’re traditionally strong in cycling, running and triathlon, as well as the general outdoor athletic world, but you’d be surprised at what a wide range of acceptance we’re getting – from open-ocean sailing competitors to lacrosse players.  At the ESPY awards this year, figure skaters and snowboarders were scooping up samples like crazy.

What products does GU currently have in the pipeline?

A: We have two exciting products in the pipeline: Peanut butter GU and Roctane drink.  The peanut butter flavor just tested off the charts at Interbike and will be available this fall at retail. It has a bit more of a savory component than our other GU gels and tastes simply awesome. The Roctane drink is tremendously exciting and, being a Roctane product, has gone through extensive testing and formulation.  It’ll be a powdered product and we expect it to hit the streets in April 2012.