By Mike Southon, FT Columnist

We all respect those who overcome debilitating physical conditions, combining a positive attitude with determination and hard work. Even more admirable are those who apply those classic entrepreneur traits to build a viable business that also helps others.

Emma Killilea suffers from coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine, for which the only known effective treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.
She already had a successful and enjoyable career designing computer games, but was becoming frustrated with the industry’s ever-increasing product life cycles.

At the age of 28, she decided to switch careers and start a business focused around increasing the quality and variety of foods available for people with her condition or with wheat allergies. Despite already having a degree in Media and German, she took the big step of selling her house and enrolling in the Food Marketing Management degree at Sheffield Hallam University.

She set herself the specific challenge of first developing a new range of gluten-free products and then getting them into the supermarkets, all the while making sure the business was profitable.

The outcome is well described by the name she ultimately chose for her business, Delicious Alchemy. The food must of course taste delicious, but there is much alchemy involved, both in developing the product itself and also fully understanding the business models.

Given a few standard ingredients, most of us could put together a tolerable gluten-free muesli mix. Much more difficult is to understand the how the tongue actually tastes food, which is much more complex than the century-old model of bitter, sour, salt and sweet. Then, there are multiple textures, colours and odours, all of which combine in different ways to influence the buying process.

Even if your product passes all the taste and appearance tests at a focus group, it is even more difficult to persuade retailers to take on your product and actively promote it to their customers. Fortunately, a significant part of her university course involved learning how to pitch to supermarkets, with many role-plays involving both academic staff and well-known retailers.

Killilea soon realised that to cope with this rigorous process she would be required to know absolutely everything about her product, including the effect of changing specific options. She is now expert in every area of food production, from flake densities and product packaging to the different effects of increasing or decreasing the level of salt.

She decided the best and cheapest way to promote her fledgling products was to win local and national business competitions. This gave her the confidence and track record to seek matched funding from her bank and local government sources, including Finance Yorkshire.

Eventually her products were offered by the supermarkets and placed alongside their existing gluten-free brands, comprehensively outselling them. Delicious Alchemy products can now be found in most supermarket chains, either under their own label or as own-brand products.

Production is outsourced, enabling her to be nimble and flexible. This is essential in the food business, where the supermarkets always return unsold stock once it has passed its sell-by date. More recently she enrolled on Doug Richard’s School for Start-ups to learn how to also sell her products on-line and build a viable internet-based business.

Her story is both inspirational and practical. Personal difficulties can be overcome, and even turned into a business that is not only fun and profitable, but also helps people with similar physical challenges.

Delicious Alchemy: www.deliciousalchemy.com

Doug Richard’s School For Startups: www.schoolforstartups.co.uk

Originally published in The Financial Times: www.ft.com Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon- Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker- www.mikesouthon.com

Mike is one of the world’s top business speakers, a Fellow of The Professional Speakers Association. Mike is a Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University. He has made frequent appearances on television and radio, has a monthly sales column in Real Business magazine and is a regular commentator in the Financial Times.

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