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Lactose-free, chocolate milk for grownups? Yes, please. Northeastern grads go ‘national’ with startup shot down on Shark Tank 

Person pouring a glass of Slate Chocolate Milk into a glass in front of a red background.
Northeastern grads started Slate, a lactose-free, high-protein beverage designed to taste like chocolate milk. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Slate, a company that markets a healthy version of chocolate milk for adults, is less than five years old, but co-founders Manny Lubin and Josh Belinsky are already legends in the startup business.

In addition to Northeastern Global News, podcasts, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes have told the story of how a shared love of chocolate milk and lactose intolerance inspired the two Northeastern graduates to create an adult, canned version of the childhood treat that has generated millions of dollars in retail sales.

“We wanted to help give chocolate milk a clean slate,” Lubin says.

What makes the co-founders success especially sweet is the way the two rebounded after an infamous rejection of the Slate prototype on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2020.

“It was a wild experience,” says Belinsky, 28, who is featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 2024.

“It was great for the brand but a little rough on the ego,” he says, adding that he and Lubin appreciated the opportunity to get exposure for Slate products before they had even made any sales.

Re-formulating the products to perfect the taste, obtaining athlete endorsements and partnering with the UFC to become an official sponsor of the largest mixed martial arts organization in the world have led to the sale of more than 15 million cans of product in thousands of stores and online.

In-store sales are currently available on the East Coast and in the Boston area, including Walmart, Whole Foods, Star Market, CVS, Market Basket, Stop & Shop, Wegmans and 7-Eleven. 

Belinsky says Slate will be expanding to major chain stores across the U.S. within the next six to eight months.

What’s next

“This will be the national push this year,” he says. “We’re four years in. Our whole thing was ‘learn small, make mistakes small.’”

Now it’s time to go bigger, Belinsky says, adding that Slate has raised $25 million to date, from athletes, institutional investors and individuals, including the co-founders of Yasso and the co-founder of Halo Top.

Belinsky says Slate started with two retailers and learned “how to become the best-selling items in their stores.”

Of the company’s 50 employees, the majority are in grocery stores every day to meet with managers, and make sure the stores have everything they need to make Slate successful within the store, Belinsky says.

“That’s part of our super power,” he says.

Working with respected social media influencers who are genuine fans of the brand is helpful as well, Belinsky says, adding the company’s first employee has grown within the company to become the head of partnerships.

The Northeastern connection

Belinsky, who graduated in 2018, and Lubin, 32, who graduated in 2015, met after college when they were both working for tech startup companies.

“The way we think about business is very similar. We like to try and help other people build things,” Lubin says.

They also discovered that they had been high school athletes (Lubin in Wellesley and Belinsky in Westwood) who had to dial down their love of chocolate milk as a treat and recovery drink due to lactose intolerance that made them unable to fully digest the sugar in milk.

They aren’t alone, of course. Boston Children’s Hospital estimates that nearly 30 million to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant and that the condition increases in adolescence and adulthood.

“I’ve always had this idea for a healthy chocolate milk drink,” Lubin says. “From the second it was said out loud, Josh was in. He pushed us to make sure there was a market — that we were not the only ones that wanted this.”

Early on, the two co-founders turned to their college alma mater for help in launching the business, obtaining $10,000 from the IDEA program, a Northeastern student-led venture accelerator, for their kickstarter campaign as well as product branding and packaging assistance from Scout, Northeastern’s inhouse design studio.

“One of the things I love about (the package) is its simplicity,” Lubin says. “We’re a strength brand. We are selling the feeling of being strong through high-protein drinks.”

A beverage learning curve

Chocolate milk may seem like a simple concept, but producing a lactose-free beverage with 20 grams of protein and no added sugar was anything but, Belinsky says.

The food world requires a lot of fundraising, especially beverages, which are expensive to produce, he says.

Factor in dairy, a well-regulated food product with little acidity to aid in preservation and the equation gets even more complicated, Belinsky says.

“You can make granola in a kitchen or test kitchen,” but not shelf-stable dairy products, he says.

Belinsky and Lubin searched online and made many phone calls to find formulation teams and manufacturers to help create their ultra-filtered milk product.

One of the keys to Slate’s products is the use of ultra-filtered milk. “The easiest way to describe it is similar to pouring milk through a Brita filter,” Belinsky says. He says filtration pulls out the lactose and leaves 20 grams of protein per can without having to add protein powder.

The canned milkshakes come in three flavors: classic chocolate, dark chocolate and French vanilla. Slate also produces canned high-protein iced coffees in mocha latte, vanilla latte and caramel latte.

“Those are our six main drinks,” Belinsky says. He says their Amazon site also sells a powdered form of the product. 

“The main reason people are drinking it is because people want more protein in their diet and less sugar,” in a product that also is creamy and indulgent, Belinsky says.

“Protein keeps you satiated,” he says, adding that Slate milkshakes are good for breakfast, mid-day snacks and post-work recovery as well as a bedtime treat.

Team players

Belinsky says he thrived in Northeastern’s entrepreneurial culture and appreciated the help he got from D’Amore-McKim Business School professor Gregory Collier and Assistant Dean Esther Chewning, who both helped shape his entrepreneurial career. 

Lubin says his college experience was less about entrepreneurship and more about team building in organizations, including the DREAM youth mentorship program and the Kappa Sigma fraternity.

“I always enjoyed being part of a team and working toward something,” says Lubin, who ended up as head of recruitment for DREAM and vice president of Kappa Sigma.

“To be honest, I think at Northeastern I realized I was too stubborn to work for anyone else,” he says.

With Belinsky, Lubin says he found a business partner he could trust and respect.

“There’s absolutely nothing more important than having a great co-founder,” Belinsky says. “Manny and I are brothers at this point. There’s no way I could have done any of this as a solo founder.”

Ask for advice

Students considering launching their own startup should look to clubs and organizations at Northeastern dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and create their own personal board of advisers, Belinsky says.

“You’ve got to ask for advice,” Lubin says. “Josh and I always say we want to be the dumbest people in the room. When we’re not learning new things, we feel we’re not progressing in the right direction.”

Having a thick skin and not taking things personally goes without saying, Belinsky says. The “Shark Tank” failure, televised and searchable on YouTube, “was the first of thousands of no’s we got over the first five years.”

Paying attention to what the customer wants and how stores operate is also critically important, they say.

“You go to the tallest hill and you shout,” Lubin says. “A lot of it is meeting people through other people who are involved in the business,” whether it’s through LinkedIn or on the golf course, he says.

The Slate co-founders say they are applying what they’ve learned as they expand with new retailers nationwide.

“We feel prepared. We feel ready,” Lubin says. “We’ve built a process that works. To grow, we just need to make sure to replicate it without letting the existing business slip through the cracks.”