Edmonton Journal | By Ed Struzik
Scientist Larry Wang was at the pinnacle of his career 20 years ago when he and Paul Davenport, then president of the University of Alberta, launched one of the world’s first energy bars.
Initially designed as a fast and efficient way for Canadian soldiers to fight off hypothermia, the Cold-Buster – the culmination of 18 years of research using more than $1 million in funding – was promising to become a success with athletes and backcountry enthusiasts.
Unlike any other product on the market, it could bypass the chemical bottleneck that inhibits body fat from being turned into fuel.
By Christmas 1991, 40,000 of the 750,000 bars in production were on stores shelves in Western Canada. Interest from the U.S. and Southeast Asia suggested it might become an international success.
But three days into the new year, Wang’s world came crashing down. A handful of poisoned bars had been sent to the Edmonton Journal, The Canadian Press and Calgary Herald. In a letter attached to the tampered products, a group calling itself the Animal Rights Militia announced it was launching a “New Year’s offensive against animal abuse.”
The letter writer claimed Wang and his associates had “slaughtered thousands of rats” during their research.
Wang got wind of it hours before he spoke with reporters. Dr. Don McKay, a trusted colleague and director of lab animal services at the university, advised him at the time: “Don’t answer with your heart. Answer with your head.”
“It was difficult to do,” recalls Wang. “I was in a state of shock. The animal testing we did was the same testing we did on humans. We simply put them in a cold climate chamber and monitored their behaviour and metabolism. There were no surgeries, no special manipulations. Every single thing we did was sanctioned beforehand by the university and followed strictly the guidelines of the Canadian Council of Animal Care.”
None of that mattered. News of the “New Year’s offensive” travelled so fast that Wang had no choice but to pull the bars from the shelves and cease production.
On the 20th anniversary of that campaign, the Cold-Buster, now sold as the Access Bar, is still on the market and royalties from the patent, which is about to expire, have made Wang a wealthy man.
But instead of retiring as he could have in 2005, Wang devotes himself to environmental causes. For the past 12 years, he and a group of volunteer scientists from the University of Alberta and elsewhere have helped Chinese peasants transform badly degraded land into environmentally friendly, sustainable and economically productive assets.
For that, he has been honoured by the Chinese government, the U of A and several other organizations.
“A remarkable human being,” says former U of A president Rod Fraser. “His natural ability to communicate with people did an awful lot of good and it opened doors for us at the university that would otherwise would not have been easy to open.”
In 1998, Wang assigned his patent rights to the university for just $1. After the university licensed the product back to him a little more than two years later, Wang hoped the military would consider including the Cold-Buster as part of a soldier’s ration. But that didn’t happen.
Making matters worse was a business partner who had not done due diligence in ordering and shipping 500,000 bars to a marketer who had a shady past. In relatively short order, L&R Wang Enterprises was on the hook for $340,000.
Wang realized the only way out was to break the rules his wife, Rosa, had laid out for him. “Don’t mortgage the house and don’t borrow money from family or friends.”
In the end, he persevered because he was convinced the product could save lives.
Success came in baby steps. First, John Stanton of the Running Room in Edmonton agreed to sell the bars in his store and talk the product up. Then, a deal opened up a small market in Taiwan. Soon, the energy bar was back in the news, getting positive play.
The big break came in the fall of 1992 when Melaleuca: The Wellness Company in the U.S. approached him about taking on the product.
Since signing a deal with Melaleuca, more than 130 million bars have been sold in 14 countries.
“The first thing my wife and I did with the royalties,” says Wang, “was to pay back our families in Taiwan who had lent us money.”
Wang was born in the city of Chongqing, China, during the Second World War. In 1949, his family moved to Taiwan to follow Chiang Kai-shek’s government.
Wang jokingly credits part of his success to the record player his father gave him for passing the National College Entrance Exam. The Elvis Presley albums he bought and listened to helped him to speak English in a conversational manner that benefited both him and his students in later years.
“Otherwise, I would still be repeating myself at each of my new semester’s class openings: ‘Welcome students. Me no speak English good. I talk, you listen; no listen, you flunk.’ “
It would be tempting to suggest Wang got his sense of humour from studying the hibernating habits of ground squirrels for 18 years. More than one friend has got a laugh out of that. But his ability to make people smile comes naturally.
In experiments, Wang identified a metabolite called adenosine, which effectively shuts down the energy fuel line in the human body when energy consumption surges during extreme cold. By minimizing the negative impact of adenosine, the energy bar he developed improved the retention of body heat by about 50 per cent.
Given the product’s commercial success over the last 20 years, Wang says he would have been content to head into semi-retirement, editing scientific journals and polishing off some papers that needed to be written. But when his best friend Sam Chao approached him in 1999 about a project he had in mind, his plans took a dramatic turn.
“Sam had taken a trip with his family to the Three Gorges in China to see the land he had left behind,” says Wang. “It was supposed to be a happy homecoming, but when he got there, he was shocked to see that the Yangtze River was a lot dirtier than he remembered it. The slopes along the river were also bare because of intense agricultural practices that had resulted in the topsoil sliding into the river. The scenery had been destroyed by the erosion. He wanted to do something about it.”
Wang initially thought his friend had lost his mind when he told him that we was willing to spend $1 million – his life savings – to help restore the landscape. But when Chao persisted with the idea, Wang realized he was serious.
“I was really touched by this dream of his,” he says. “One man willing to give away all of his life savings to make a difference. So I approached Rod Fraser, who was president of the University of Alberta at the time “
The idea appealed to Fraser because it would help make the university a leader on an environmental issue that had gained international attention.
ECO, the Environmental Conservancy Outreach project that grew out of those discussions, has exceeded expectations. In some places, the money and expertise has encouraged farmers to grow mulberries instead of corn so they can raise and harvest the valuable cocoons from silkworms that feed on the mulberry leaves.
In other places, they got farmers to grow bamboo instead of corn and rice. Unlike rice, bamboo shoots can be harvested three or four times a year and bring in up to five times the price that a rice harvest pays. In both cases, the trees keep hillside soil from eroding into the river.
“In just a few years, these people are making five to 12 times the amount of money they earned in the past. It’s so encouraging to hear them talk about sending their children to university. It’s also encouraging to see how these new reforestation practices are restoring the environment.”
Sam Chao’s death a little over a year ago also convinced him to persevere.
“I feel I owe it to him to keep his dream alive. He was willing to sacrifice everything to make this happen.”
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