Son of Scientists Took Garage Business to New Heights

Read how CEO Elan Sudberg, of CRN member Alkemist Labs, turned a father-son garage business into a respected industry brand—part of our new “Profiles in Leadership” series.

"We moved to California because acupuncture was illegal in New York,” said Elan Sudberg, interviewed recently via teleconferencing. “Which is kind of funny to say out loud.”

If funny also means “quirky” in this context, then Sudberg’s narrative history feels a little like the script of a Wes Anderson movie. Both of his parents were scientists—mom, a microbiologist, and dad, a chemist. “Once a chemist, always a chemist,” Sudberg said, before explaining that his father also became a chiropractor, an herbalist and, accounting for the family’s migration to the West Coast, an acupuncturist.”

His father would mix up tinctures of herbal remedies for his chiropractic patients in the family’s garage (a place Sudberg describes as “basically a manufacturing facility”). The making of products necessitated the need for analysis of the herbs for purity. Microscopes were purchased and before the elder Sudberg and his son, at that point in high school, knew it, they were asked to analyze the bulk batches of some major herbal supplement providers. Next, the son forked over his bar mitzvah money, and Dad ponied up his 401K. And soon word got around.

“At this point we're a laboratory that's in the former colonic irrigation room of my dad's chiropractic practice,” recalled Sudberg. “Around ’97 we realized that we were getting out of herbal tinctures manufacturing and starting a commercial testing lab.”

The road to building what is now called Alkemist Labs was not an easy one. Sudberg remembers scrubbing toilets and missing lots of parties after going right to work for the family business out of high school. Working full-time to build the family’s lab, his undergraduate chemistry education took a decade. But he was learning a lot on the job. While his father phased out the chiropractic business, the building of Alkemist fell to Elan.

“His job was always ‘the chemist,’ remembered Sudberg. ”And mine was just clever-marketing-business kid just kind of winging it. And I’m still winging it 27 years later.”

If he’s winging it, it’s working. Alkemist Labs is now a multi-million-dollar enterprise with an ever-growing workforce and a steady stream of big name clients in the supplements space. And it’s probably safe to say that the CEO is no longer scrubbing toilets.

He said that one secret to their success is to resist allowing technology to replace human ingenuity. They started out using the very simple techniques of light microscopy and, in an era when other labs are expanding into AI and sophisticated digital imaging techniques, Sudberg says they haven’t lost sight of the importance of old school know-how. Those same skills helped establish their business after the father and son team helped revive the Australian supplements market by testing adulterated products for the government during a high-profile recall in the late 1990s. It would be a realization for younger Sudberg that they had launched a viable business that could have enormous impact.

Timing didn’t hurt. Alkemist was launched not long after the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) passed, marking an era where the need for product testing in the industry arose.  But it wasn’t all timing. There was also a healthy dose of “tenacity,” Sudberg attributes to much of his success. But he also compares himself to David and Goliath, a reference to the fact that he often “speaks truth to power” within some industry channels, which has garnered him a reputation as a bit of a “rabble rouser” in certain supplement circles. Example: he is quick to point out the “absurdity” that supplement manufacturers can’t make health claims about chamomile, and yet Big Tobacco still has their products on store shelves all over the country.

“I've had the luxury of not having a board of directors,” said Sudberg, speaking about his ability to run an outspoken blog about the more controversial aspects of the industry. “But now I also rely on a team of implementers who allow me to be more visionary.”

Lately that vision includes the development of a testing approach and method for what may prove one day to be a wave of new psychedelic products entering the market. If and when that happens, Alkemist Labs will be ready. In fact, his Zoom background is the vines of the ayahuasca plant, which is known to bring to those who take it “altered perceptions of reality,” according to Wikipedia.

One can’t help but think Sudberg has chosen it because, like the hardy shrub, he is a survivor, an entrepreneur who has been able to alter his own perceptions of success. And it’s a trip that’s still got Sudberg reaching for the next career high.