Jennifer Wolbers thought she had retired. Then, a little more than three years ago, her phone rang. Bill Nicholson, a former chief operating officer at Amway, where Wolbers worked for 19 years, was on the other line. The message that Nicholson wanted to deliver to Wolbers was clear.
“You’re not retired anymore,” Nicholson told his former colleague, who had settled into an easy life in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We’ve got a new project to go do. We’re going to change the way people look at health.”
Nicholson had been quietly researching CBD: the potential benefits, the way it could be paired with other established ingredients, the world of possibilities. He’d already met Mikel Anderson, who had secured hundreds of patents with an eye on the future of the industry. Three weeks later, Nicholson was flying to Michigan to pitch Wolbers on his vision in person. In short order, Nicholson, Wolbers and Anderson founded Aktive, a lifestyle brand that incorporates hemp-derived CBD with the goal of addressing some of the most common health problems.
What Aktive would come to represent is less about the abstract trend that CBD has given rise to and more about the development of well-rounded products that take on problems such as insomnia, joint pain, anxiety and even the maladies our pets experience.
Why Nicholson wanted Wolbers on his team was clear: She had 35 years of experience in the health and beauty space, developing products and brands. Knowing what you’re selling doesn’t mean anything if your consumers don’t know what they’re being sold and why they need it. Wolbers has a lifetime of experience communicating these types of messages. But from the time she answered Nicholson’s phone call three years ago, being ready to market anything for Aktive felt far in the future.
“I knew nothing about CBD,” she admits.
She did some research of her own, and Nicholson laid out what he and Anderson saw as potential business opportunities within the CBD realm. The next two years were devoted to the three founders doing their homework.
There were questions to be asked. The founders needed to understand how to operate with consistency on a large scale. How do you ensure quality CBD? How do you process it? How do you manufacture it?
“It’s been a journey over the past three years to find quality hemp-derived CBD sources, find quality manufacturers that complied with OTC and FDA regulations and figuring out the testing process so we could ensure our products were safe and contained what we said they did,” Wolbers says. “Prior to three years ago, it was hard to get a hold of it—even if you fell in love with CBD, you couldn’t acquire it.”
Among many other policies it established during its earliest years, Aktive tests and validates its products starting with hemp grown and harvested practices on family farms in the U.S., and products that adhere to OTC and FDA rules and guidelines.
But part of the struggle the Aktive team faced is also what made their goal so exciting to them: Entering a brand new industry means navigating a constantly shifting landscape.
Handling the unpredictability is worth the extra effort to the Aktive team because being ahead in health and science can mean playing a hand in large-scale positive change. The rise of hemp-derived CBD reminded Wolbers and Nicholson of a health discovery that made a major breakthrough in the 1990s.
“I look at the CBD world as being similar to the omega-3 world in terms of, here’s a great ingredient that can impact your health in so many ways,” Wolbers says.
Omega-3 fatty acids were discovered well before the 1990s, but it wasn’t until then that the full extent of their potential benefits (they have been found to curb the symptoms of arthritis and decrease the risk of heart disease) became understood and publicized.
Supplements that featured omega-3, such as fish oil supplements, became quite popular, and Wolbers and Nicholson just so happened to work on such a product at Amway. So they understood the legwork required to navigate a fresh space. But just as importantly, they understood what comes next. Although the Aktive team believes that hemp-derived CBD can have positive effects on general health, they started the company with the goal of helping consumers with specific issues. Sometimes that means knowing that the first step to solving a problem is to admit that you aren’t always the best person to solve it.
“The reality is everyone is an expert in their own field, but no one is an expert in everything, so it’s better to partner with experts who can help you be the best as opposed to trying to figure it out and maybe never getting there,” Wolbers says.
One of the most fascinating partnerships Aktive is engaged in attempts to address something that everyone needs but tens of millions of Americans struggle to get: sleep. What exactly happens when we are asleep still largely remains a mystery to doctors and scientists, but Dr. Michael Breus has dedicated his life to studying it.
“Sleep affects every organ system and every disease state. Literally everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep,” says Breus, a clinical psychologist known as “The Sleep Doctor,” the author of three books on sleep, WebMD’s former Sleep Expert and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show.
When the Aktive team officially decided they wanted to address insomnia, they knew they had to get Breus.
“Quite honestly, people are tired of being tired,” he says. “Americans have incrementally transitioned into a work-centric, I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead culture, and it’s leading to higher cases of depression and anxiety.”
Breus has dedicated too much of his life to sleep science to be convinced that CBD alone could cure millions of people’s insomnia. He readily admits that a consistent sleep routine is as important as anything.
Fortunately for the young company, Breus’s past experiences gave him reason for optimism about CBD. In both Arizona and Atlanta, where he practiced for a combined 17 years, many of his patients were veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve seen the value in cannabis,” he says. “I saw the value of cannabis firsthand in my patients with PTSD.”
The partnership plan was simple: Aktive would make and distribute the CBD if Breus could find the right formula. To do this, he considered what has effectively helped people get sleep as well as what quality sleep entails.
“I looked at the most effective pharmaceutical sleep aids on the market and I looked at what receptor sites they stimulated in the brain,” Breus says. “And then I found natural ingredients that stimulated those same areas and I suggested the ingredient profile.”
The result is the Aktive Sleep Booster Spray. Breus is quick to credit common pharmaceutical pills such as Ambien as effective. Although they may not necessarily be addictive in the traditional sense, if you start taking them regularly, it can become extremely difficult to fall asleep without them.
“There’s a large psychological dependence, if you will, that I don’t think is healthy on a psychological and emotional level,” Breus says.
Consistency is a huge element of sleep. Pharmaceutical sleeping pills are synthetic products that work by activating the body’s sleep response, so the consistency lies in simply taking the pill. But a product such as Breus’s Sleep Booster aims to be a guiding hand that helps your body consistently do what should come naturally.
Or, as Breus puts it: “Pharmaceutical intervention is meant to replace a system as if it’s broken. I have met very few people who have what I’d call a broken sleeper.”
If a potential drawback of options like Ambien is dependency, then that brings up an important point about Aktive’s sleep product: you don’t have to take it every night.
“I’m probably the only person in the universe to say, ‘You don’t have to stay on my product forever,’ ” he says. The idea is to help users find a consistent sleep schedule. Once that is established, perhaps the Sleep Booster could add additional help when they are traveling or coming into a stressful month that might make sleeping difficult.
Aktive is straightforward about its ingredients. A bottle of Sleep Booster spray contains Valerian root, melatonin, lactium, hops, and 200 mg of hemp-derived CBD. According to Breus, these are the kind of combinations that can produce results. Anxiety is a leading problem preventing sleep and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed on multiple levels, according to Breus. “Our goal was to take a very tactful research-based approach,” he says.
This is all to say that Aktive trusts Breus as it trusts all of its partners. It may be a CBD company, but a big part of the mission is providing a platform and resources to specific healthcare experts to make results-driven products. Breus is developing a sleep course to be offered by Aktive. That course may have little to do with CBD, but everything to do with health.
CBD is the talk of the wellness world right now. But the Aktive team gives credence to other options by listening to the people who study specific health concerns. Each ingredient in the natural health products we’ve accepted as beneficial took time to earn that designation, and rightfully so.
Down the line, CBD may be a common ingredient in many offerings aimed at addressing sleep, skin care, anxiety or pet health. Aktive’s founders and partners believe in CBD’s potential to boost the combination of ingredients that are already working for people.