By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
Kalen Caughey was competing as an 18-year-old mogul skier a decade ago when he hatched the idea for an energy tablet he could carry in his pocket. After ten years of research, product development and guerrilla marketing, Caughey now has elite athletes taking his Voke Tabs to the far corners of the planet.
The Voke Tab ambassador team includes the likes of mountaineer Conrad Anker, adventurer and National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin, and professional skier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa. The team also consists of athletes like Bozeman’s Tyler Bradt, a kayaker who’s currently sailing around the world base jumping and seeking first descents of waterfalls.
As an active teenager, Caughey was just looking for a convenient way to get a boost before bashing down mogul runs.
“I was a big coffee drinker, but it didn’t work taking it on the hill,” Caughey said, noting that coffee also caused him to duck into the woods to relieve himself before competitive runs. “That led me down this path of making tablets with a few ingredients you want, but not what you don’t.”
The current iteration of Voke Tabs – sold in slim green tins of three or seven tablets – are made from green tea, acerola cherry, guarana berries and erythritol for sweetener. Caughey says the chewable tabs are about 70 percent organic and each has the amount of caffeine equivalent to a strong cup of tea.
Caughey learned to make candy that winter, and the following summer he employed the help of his father, a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Lab. The elder Caughey had access to thousands of pages of scientific literature, which his son pored over looking for natural ingredients that would give users of his fledgling product a mental boost.
He ordered organic guarana berries from Brazil and started experimenting with different recipes before moving to Bozeman the following fall to attend Montana State University. The first product Caughey packaged was called “Energia,” and he says he owes much of his success to the Bozeman community.
“Hundreds of people in Bozeman contributed to product development, trying the tablets and taking them out on the ski hill,” Caughey said. “That first Energia tablet was finished in a South Hedges dorm room.”
In 2008, Caughey changed the name to Voke Tab and re-launched the product with his brother Evan, who is a self-taught graphic designer. Together they designed the tin’s red lion logo that was inspired by Hamilton’s Roaring Lion Canyon near where they grew up. The Caughey brothers and Hood River, Ore.-based Ryan Huggins are the company’s only full-time employees.
“We’re a really scrappy start-up company,” Caughey said. “We’re just trying to get by to make ends meet, expand our distribution and get the word out.” Having a team of brand ambassadors like Conrad Anker has spread that word on a global scale.
“For portable, performance energy there’s really nothing on the market that matches it,” said Anker, who’s also the company’s vice president of marketing. Anker was introduced to Voke Tab in 2012 by his son Max Lowe and has used them ever since. He took the tablets up Mount Everest on a 2012 climb – done in alpine style without supplemental oxygen – to commemorate the first American summit expedition in 1963.
“The sherpas loved it,” he said, noting the Nepalese porters called Voke Tabs “legs no tired,” and began taking them as a ritual before negotiating the perilous Khumbu Icefall.
“Rather than having to brew coffee, the caffeine is in an easily accessible form,” Anker said of the benefits to climbing with Voke. “When you’re seeking it, you have it right there [in your pocket].”
Caughey spends nine months on the road living out of his camper and marketing Voke at trade shows, bike and ski shops, and special events around the western U.S. Voke Tabs are now sold at more than 130 retailers from Telluride, Colo. to Seattle, Wash. and mountain communities in between.
Caughey says the company has come a long way in a decade, but getting product into the hands of athletes is still Voke Tab’s recipe for success.