Damian Lee of Mr Lee's
After being unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer, entrepreneur Damien Lee wanted to bring the world a truly gourmet cup noodle that would be guilt-free and good for you…
“I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life,” says Damian. “I’ve started, developed and sold numerous businesses from France, Singapore, Sweden, Iraq and more.
“I was born in Sydney Australia, but after travelling for work opportunities, London became my home for many years. I was a city boy at heart, and after running an executive search firm ‘Search Partners’ for many years, I was truly chasing dreams and success.
“Search Partners expanded into Asia and Europe and worked with many of the world's leading banks and interdealer brokers, ranked by the EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) as one of the world’s top boutique financial executive search firms.
“London was a blast, but I didn’t realise at the time that I was always taking shortcuts to eating, enjoying nasty noodles in particular, and living fast. Did I care they full of rubbish, sugar, E’s, MSG’s? Not really, because they tasted great! However, it became clear that the City lifestyle was catching up to me - I was burnt out and ready for a change.
“Looking to reconnect to my Sydney roots I moved to sunny Bournemouth, and it's here where I launched ‘Designed Gadget’s’ - a platform for innovation, and started to settle into my new home. My lifestyle had completely changed from the fast-paced city demands and suddenly I could take my time and pinpoint the direction I wanted my business to take
“I had two local Universities supporting me and momentum was flying until one day, just like that, I was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Being told that you have late stage four cancer in your chest and stomach and probably only have a few weeks left to live is mind-blowing to say the least.
“They gave me a choice between starting treatment or not, as it was on my terms whether I wanted to ride it out and have a better quality of life to the end without the chemo. Up to this point Designed Gadgets was my dream project, but with great remorse, I had to put it aside to embark upon my subsequent battle with cancer. I have two young boys James and Joshua, and I wanted to see them grow up.
“This is where Mr Lee’s Noodles idea began to take shape, as what did I crave more than anything during my recovery? Cup noodles! But I had to take a step back to redefine my diet, as I really hadn’t been paying attention to what I was putting in my body for the past five years.
“After a gruelling 16 rounds of chemo and chemo related treatment I was free, but I thought; ‘What now, what’s next? Maybe I could push an existing noodle brand?’ but this didn’t fit with my principles. What I really wanted was to lead a noodle revolution and give the world authentic, oriental cup noodles that would be guilt-free and good for you.”
When Damien started Mr Lee’s Noodles, the instant noodle sector was already growing 10% per annum, with over 100 billion instant noodles consumed every year. Fortunately, his basis of innovation from the product itself to distribution would later gain support in the industry, from the leaders in contract catering to Bournemouth University.
Damien added: “We were one of a few brands to eventually gain a trial with one of the major contract catering companies, which was an amazing opportunity for the brand. I was able to tap into their networks and learn from their retail experience - and we have a great relationship to date.”
Launching in January 2016, Mr Lee’s has already developed six cup noodles for market, an innovative run of ‘Noodle Kiosk’ vending machines and has secured listings with a variety of international hotels, boutique retailers & travel and airline providers.
But despite its early success, starting the business was not easy, as Damien recalls: “Trying to make a difference in an industry that been operating in the same ways for many years was tough, as both the industry and consumers already had a low opinion of cup noodle products. They were mostly full of junk, but I wanted to create a healthy noodle, and I wanted to put them in vending machines, but first I had to convince the sector that this could be possible.
“To keep the noodles as healthy as possible, I decided to use freeze-dried ingredients, that unlike dehydrated are able to maintain the physical and nutritional integrity of the product. We tested different substitutes for food additives, such as honey instead of added sugar, and lime-peel for that salty taste, and the product slowly came together, but I didn’t stop there.
“To avoid the competitiveness of supermarkets we created our own vending delivery system, the Noodle Kiosks, that are interactive, digital and available 24/7. Once the Noodle Kiosks came to shape, we really entered our own domain, and the sector began to fall in our favour. I had no retail experience, I just stepped out of my box and did it!”
By creating a truly healthy noodle snack, Damien has overcome industry obstacles, achieving the goals he once set when he believed his life could be cut short. He stuck to his principles, and has created a product that hasn’t fallen to the demands of junk food.
Looking ahead, Damien says: “We are looking to go global with the product and eventually sell back to China, the home of cup noodles. As we expand into different product ranges and push our Noodle Kiosk program, we hope our products will inspire as many people as possible! We want to stay as close as possible to our core values of delivering healthy, guilt-free and good for you foods.
“Right now though, we want to associate ourselves with the right supporters and investors, and after our equity crowdfunding campaign for Q3 this year, we hope our brand will enter as many avenues as possible.”