But when an unlikely side project born of personal experience picked up steam, the 2014 Waterloo Engineering graduate took a deep breath and switched gears from electric cars to hangover prevention.
Lee and classmate Kenny Leung, who were rooming and working on school projects together just a few years ago, are now entrepreneurs chasing a share of a market they believe could be worth US $5 billion a year in the United States alone.
“It’s very exciting and, to be honest, very surreal,” says Lee, CEO and co-founder of a startup company called 82 Labs that is based in Los Angeles. “A lot of it is luck, for sure.”
Good fortune first shone when Lee, 27, took a vacation in his native South Korea in 2016 and did some hard drinking with friends while he was there.
Particularly prone to hangovers, he was introduced to products that are sold in practically every South Korean corner store and claim to reduce the day-after misery of too much booze.
Hangover drink makes use of a centuries-old herb
Lee was so impressed by their effectiveness that he did some research when he got home to the San Francisco Bay Area and stumbled on a paper by a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Jing Liang, now a professor at the University of Southern California, had done research involving alcohol and a herbal compound called dihydromyricetin (DHM) that has been used in Asian hangover remedies for thousands of years.
Intrigued, Lee connected with Liang and got her to make up a small batch of drinks featuring DHM, then tried them out on himself and his friends.
Encouraged by plenty of positive feedback, he returned to South Korea and bluffed his way into getting 600 samples made at factories there for an investment of about $1,000.
“I didn’t go in wearing flip-flops and shorts like I was in the Bay Area,” Lee says. “I was in suits, trying to be as formal as possible.”
A whirlwind of trials, word of mouth, social media exposure, crowdfunding and online orders later, Lee quit his job at Tesla, enlisted Leung as a co-founder to take advantage of his e-commerce experience at Facebook and launched 82 Labs (82 is the telephone country code for South Korea) in mid-2017.
By the end of the year, after raising about $1.5 million in funding – including key support from Jordan Banks, the former managing director of Facebook Canada, through his investment company, Thunder Road Capital – and securing a South Korean supplier, the startup was on target to have shipped about 600,000 units of its Morning Recovery hangover prevention drink and hit $3 million in sales.
Morning Recovery – the Rx for day-after suffering
Lee says the DHM in Morning Recovery, which is sold online in 100 ml bottles costing about $5 each, helps the liver to break down alcohol to prevent the buildup of toxins that cause hangover symptoms.
He says it also minimizes the negative impact of alcohol on neurotransmitters in the brain and contains several other beneficial ingredients, including electrolytes to reduce dehydration.
Ideally, the drink should be taken while consuming alcohol or before turning in for the night after consuming alcohol.
Liang holds some equity, is on board as a technology adviser and has an intellectual property agreement with the company involving a proprietary method to extract and purify DHM.
With nine employees, the company hopes to get the approvals needed to sell its Morning Recovery hangover prevention drink in Canada, shift production to North America, secure equity financing and reach at least $10 million in sales in 2018.
“I’m very grateful and right now I’m all in,” says Lee, who was featured in Business Insider. “There’s no looking back. We are going to take this as far as we can and there are a lot of exciting things ahead.”
This story first appeared in eWEAL.