By Rachel Siford
Even hedgehogs need to watch their calories.
Nesconset native Brianna Stiklickas went from being an extreme soccer player with recruitment offers from 40 different colleges to starting her own business to benefit her beloved exotic pet. The 22-year-old college sophomore and The Stony Brook School graduate recently celebrated a successful Kickstarter campaign in which she raised more than $12,000 to boost her new business, Meet Eugene, named after her hedgehog.
A severe leg injury forced her to the sidelines, but it was a blessing in disguise as Stiklickas found a new passion: to save Eugene from what his veterinarian diagnosed as severe obesity in the 3-year-old African pygmy hedgehog.
“Once I stopped being so heavy-duty with the sports, I really started to get into my academics,” Stiklickas said. “That’s when I first came up with the idea of Meet Eugene, an exotic pet food company.”
Her breeder originally said to feed Eugene high-quality cat food, as most hedgehog owners do, but through a lot of research, Stiklickas said she realized that it causes issues like obesity — one of the top health problems in hedgehogs. Hedgehogs typically live about four to six years, but if fed properly and taken care of, can live to up to nine. And with hopes of pushing that number, Stiklickas started an Instagram account called Meet Eugene months before she even decided to start her own company. All of a sudden, she found herself with 700 followers and counting; thus the name of her company was born. Today she has more than 1,200 followers.
She formulated HealthHog, a grain-free hedgehog food fortified with vitamins and minerals to support the hedgehog’s digestive and immune system, rather than a cat or dog’s.
“Just because something is a premium price, doesn’t mean it is a premium product,” Stiklickas said. “And I found that out the hard way.”
Stiklickas went to Babson College, one of the top schools in the country for entrepreneurship, where she learned to develop her company in class with the help of her professors and classmates.
“Throughout college, I worked five jobs, was on two sports teams, was a full-time student and was starting a business, so being able to use my company in class really benefitted me,” Stiklickas said.
She researched hedgehogs for two years with veterinarians, then moved on to market research when she sent out surveys to hedgehog communities online and to breeders. Stiklickas started looking on the market for hedgehog foods, and the few she found had ingredients that were not healthy, like blood meal, which is indigestible by most animals.
She made Eugene’s food from scratch and saw what he did well on, then worked with a food scientist to see if she could get it ready to manufacture. Since she put her hedgehog on this new diet, he started shedding the weight.
Stiklickas recently achieved her goal of $12,000 from her Kickstarter campaign, so she can manufacture and sell HealthHog, which she hopes to have ready in about four months.
“I want a food that’s actually made for them and not just made for profit,” Stiklickas said. “I realized how much of an issue it really was across the nation.”
With help from her classes as well as two start-up incubators, WIN Lab and Babson Summer Venture Program, she developed three parts to her company.
First, she has “For the Pet,” which includes the HealthHog food, accessories, cages and toys she is developing currently. Then, she has “For the Owner,” which will be a lifestyle brand for owners. And lastly, she has the “Education” section, which includes Meet and Greets, educational programing, and 4 children’s books she also wrote while at Babson.
She said she plans to host educational programs at libraries and schools to teach children and their parents how exotic animals, like hedgehogs, sugar gliders, chinchillas and prairie dogs, are as pets.
“A huge part of my company is not just trying to improve the lives of these animals, but is also trying to educate people so they know how to treat the animals,” Stiklickas said.
Stiklickas reminisced back to when she was little and used to make up companies. At first, she said, she wanted to do marketing, then finance. She later realized that entrepreneurship combined all the things she loved to do.
Working for five different startups throughout college also encouraged her that she had what it took.
“As much as I thought about starting my own company, I never thought I’d do it,” Stiklickas said.
Stiklickas’ dream, she said, is to do this full time and open the next exotic pet brand, but unfortunately she might have to take a job eventually because of college loans.
“Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle; it definitely takes a special type of person to work everyday on a company that may or may not be successful,” Stiklickas said.