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story.lead_photo.caption Cody Cook (left), Stanley Hastings and Mike Conley stock a store display of their product, HTWO Hydration Water, at Go! Running in Little Rock. - Photo by Benjamin Krain

User testimonials for HTWO Hydrogen Water sound, the company's CEO admits, too good to be true.

Parkinson's, sickle cell and diabetes are among the diseases for which symptoms lessened through regular use of the product, according to accounts listed on the company's website. Individual pouches of the water carry claims of the drink's ability to reduce lactic acid, fatigue and inflammation, while boosting metabolism.

HTWO CEO Mike Conley, a former University of Arkansas track star and Olympic medalist, understands the skepticism that surrounds the project. He, too, had questions about the legitimacy of the claims made by Little Rock's Dr. Cody Cook, who developed HTWO while working on a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

What began as a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences cancer-research project has turned into a commercial product that is being carried in about 600 stores across the U.S.

"It sounds like snake oil, I know," Conley said. "It's been a long journey. We've had the same hiccups and challenges that any startup company would have and what makes it even more difficult is we're producing something that we have to explain the benefits. Anybody can create a product that is already in the market and make it cheaper or better. We're producing something that people don't understand."

Cook became convinced of the benefits of water infused with molecular hydrogen nearly a decade ago. He was working on his doctorate when he began investigating the link between increased increased energy levels when additional hydrogen is present in the body.

A team of researchers in Japan, which included Cook, concluded that additional hydrogen in the bodies of cancer patients aided in their recovery. Additional research continues and the topic is becoming increasingly common in medical research journals.

One such article, found online through the National Library of Medicine, noted that quality-of-life metrics improved for liver cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. "Daily consumption of hydrogen-rich water is a potentially novel, therapeutic strategy for improving [quality of life] after radiation exposure. Consumption of hydrogen-rich water reduces the biological reaction to radiation-induced oxidative stress without compromising anti-tumor effects."

Getting the treatment approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration is a lengthy and costly process. Cook said when he finished research the project for his degree, he didn't have the resources to pursue FDA approval, but was convinced that in the meantime HTWO had a future on the shelves of retailers.

It was while looking for a way to commercialize the product and working with UAMS BioVentures that he met Conley. The more Cook explained the science behind what he was proposing, the more intrigued Conley became, both men, now business partners, said.

"I knew the science was good. We needed somebody to help us talk about it," said Cook. "We started telling Mike about the research being done. He sees sports therapies and medicines come across his desk all the time. He came over to the hospital, met the doctors, met folks at UAMS BioVentures. He started seeing it grow in medical community and started believing in it."

Conley helped introduce Cook to Carolyn Hardy, a Memphis businesswoman with a background in the beverage and bottling industry. Hardy, who could not be reached for comment, helped develop unique packaging for HTWO and used her connections to set up a distribution network.

Kroger stores in central Arkansas will begin carrying the product next month, Cook said. Grocery store chains Giant Eagle, Inc., Hy-Vee and Albertsons are selling the product in some locations, Cook said. Smaller specialty stores like Go! Running in Little Rock also carry HTWO.

Individual 16.9-ounce pouches of HTWO are $3.50 each. A seven-pouch package costs $28 on the company's website, and a case containing 28 pouches sells for $98.

Conley, a licensed sports agent, helped introduce the product to professional athletes. Among the users of the product is Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr. Conley's son invested in HTWO last year and touted it to his teammates, according to the Memphis Business Journal. Conley Jr. told the outlet that the water had become "part of the pregame routine" for himself and his teammates.

Cook credited Kevin Raney, chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at UAMS, for encouraging him to further pursue his research. Raney said it is unusual for a student to monetize a research product in this way. Researchers want to find medical or commercial uses for their efforts but aren't often successful.

"This is unfortunately a rarity," Raney said. "It's something we all have an interest in doing, making some kind of discovery, uncovering some process that leads to a product or a diagnosis or a therapy. It's extremely rare for someone to do this, and to do it primarily as a student, which is what Dr. Cook did."

Cook, who started his research in 2007, remains hopeful that clinical trials will one day establish molecular hydrogen water as an FDA-approved aid to cancer patients. Currently he doesn't have the resources to embark on the trial himself and is working to grow HTWO into more of a household name among consumers concerned with health and wellness.

Currently the product is being packaged and distributed from Florida, but Cook said the goal is to ultimately move the operations closer to Little Rock or Memphis. HTWO executives are hopeful the product could be in 1,000 stores by the end of 2016.

"The end goal is to get recognized [by the FDA] for its therapeutic potential," said Cook, a Bryant native with an undergraduate degree from the University of Central Arkansas. "Our whole end goal is to raise the awareness and resources we need to get back into hospital and show the true potential. Until then, we'll continue proving ourselves to retailers and growing our footprint nationally."

SundayMonday Business on 10/16/2016

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