Running Battle

Running Battle

The founders of UCAN, a Woodbridge company that manufactures sports hydration powder, energy powder and energy bars, didn’t start out trying to improve athletic performance. They wanted to cure Jonah Feldman’s disease.

Feldman was born with glycogen storage disease, type 1A, a rare genetic disorder that prevents patients from converting glycogen into glucose. “Without the ability to access this stored energy, the body’s blood glucose levels will drop dangerously low, resulting in severe hypoglycemia, seizures, coma, and potentially death,” according to the Children’s Fund for Glycogen Storage Disease Research, a foundation established by Jonah’s family and several others whose children have GSD.

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Shortly after Jonah was born, his mother Wendy says, his blood sugar was tested; it was so low it wouldn’t register. Hospital staff thought at first there had been some mistake, but it didn’t take long to figure out that GSD was the culprit. There was a relatively simple treatment: ingesting corn starch every three hours. But it was absolutely essential that Jonah not miss a single feeding.

Feedings on a schedule during the day were manageable, but for the first nine years of Jonah’s life, his parents also had to take turns getting up every three hours overnight to inject a corn starch solution into the feeding tube in his stomach. They got so good at it they could do it without waking him up, but the routine took a toll. “Just to do that, it’s so exhausting, day after day, and also the pressure of you can’t miss it,” Wendy says.

Jonah’s father, David Feldman, knew business partners Peter Kaufman, Shoba Murali and Steve Squinto through various personal connections. At the start, Wendy recalls dreaming of “some kind of a magic pill” that would keep Jonah’s blood sugar steady for longer periods of time. The young company went in search of a carbohydrate that might be able to deliver. They experimented with all kinds of foods—pea starch, lentils, legumes, oats, rice, tapioca—and finally landed on corn and a “patient, precise cooking process developed by scientists in Europe” which yielded “a gentle, slow-digesting carbohydrate,” the UCAN website explains. It’s a “new-to-the-world carbohydrate,” cofounder Kaufman says. “We’re energy without sugar.”

Named SuperStarch and cooked with non-GMO corn, the product was first tested by its founders, a dozen or so additional volunteers and GSD patients in the United Kingdom over the course of a year or more. The night Jonah first used it, under supervision in the hospital, the entire medical team showed up to see the results every half hour, Wendy says. The trial was a success, and ultimately “life-changing,” says Jonah, now 18 and an athlete himself.

It became clear that managing blood sugar, as SuperStarch was doing for Jonah, had other potential applications, Kaufman says. “We started wondering what a carbohydrate, completely natural, that keeps anyone’s blood sugar stable for hours could do for .” The Woodbridge biotech ran informal trials with three ice hockey teams and got “amazing, positive feedback” at the end of the season “on how the athletes felt during the game, especially in the third period on the ice,” Kaufman says. The company pivoted to creating sports energy products. The first elite athlete to train using it was Meb Keflezighi—according to his website, “the only athlete in history to win the Boston Marathon, the New York City Marathon & an Olympic medal.”

The benefit of the SuperStarch in UCAN is more stable blood sugar than athletes get from the sugars in other sports products. “When you keep your blood sugar completely stable, you don’t get as fatigued,” Kaufman explains, adding that you have a “higher-quality second half of your workout because your blood sugar and your energy don’t drop.” He notes that even ordinary athletes find UCAN helpful for training and weight loss because they’re not famished at the end of a workout and therefore “don’t eat twice as many calories at the end of workout as burned with personal trainer.” Independent research on the effects of SuperStarch has also found it to have a positive effect on soccer skills performance in a lab setting and “a more stable and consistent energy profile” for endurance running.

Though UCAN launched in 2010, Kaufman says it’s “still kind of under the radar,” partly because it doesn’t pay promotional fees to use teams’ and athletes’ names, though he says the product is being used by teams that have “won every major college and pro football and basketball championship.” Locally, Quinnipiac University is a major customer.

Retired Hopkins School tennis and squash coach Bill Ewen, now 75 years old and looking forward to his first post-COVID tennis tournament, is a UCAN fan, too. He’s found it to be helpful not only for matches but also for non-athletic events that require stamina and concentration, like delivering a sermon as a lay preacher at his church. “It is not a panacea,” warns the lifelong athlete, who still does 50 pushups every day. “You have to do your homework in sports. You have to drill, you have to be the right weight, so it’s not a substitute for that, but what it seems to do is to level out your energy and, in fact, sustain it for a period of time.” In athletic competition, “you may lose, you may win,” Ewen says, “but I have found that does help, although if I have a bad night’s sleep the night before, you know, that’s not going to erase that.”

A bad night’s sleep is exactly what the Feldmans no longer have to live with, of course. Wendy has even started using UCAN herself. She’s a runner and a mother to four boys, of whom Jonah is the oldest. “With these four kids, I need energy,” she says. Jonah also uses UCAN not just to keep his blood sugar up overnight but also to stay hydrated during baseball and hockey games or for a midday snack. “I never let it affect me,” Jonah says of living with GSD. “A lot of people, when they see me, will have no idea that there’s anything wrong.”

Now he’s headed off to college. He’s been practicing in advance, taking control of all of his own feedings, equipment and supplies. In June, his feeding tube was removed. “Now he goes to bed like a regular kid at night, and we don’t see him ’til the morning,” Wendy says. “It’s amazing. Of course, when he goes off to college, I’m probably going to be a little nervous.”

The Feldmans’ foundation, meanwhile, has spent the last 18 years raising $8 million for research and is closing in on what they hope will be a cure, using gene therapy. A research team at the University of Connecticut has taken the lead role, and “initial results are extremely positive,” the foundation’s website says.

Of course, the search for a cure is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.

11 Research Drive, Ste 1, Woodbridge (map)
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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