Alarmed by an epidemic of diabetes in dogs and cats, an ENG grad founded a pet food company that puts nutrition first

By Patrick L. Kennedy

Sure, you love your furry friends and you buy them food they’ll love. But how healthy is that food? That tin of cat chow or bag of doggie treats? Turns out, they’re often labeled in a way that can fool even the smartest and most ardent animal devotees.

Michael Landa (ENG’88) wants you to think about how you’d feed your pets if they were elite athletes of the animal kingdom. A trained engineer and former varsity swim captain, Landa has been a business strategist in fields from high-tech sales to Hollywood, and now he runs Nulo, a fast-growing pet food brand that puts a premium on nutrition.

Michael Landa (ENG’88) receiving the BU swim team MVP award from Coach Reagh Wetmore in 1988.

Landa grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts. He walked the family dog, a Boxer named Max, during the rare moments when he wasn’t swimming competitively or studying.

Boston University awarded Landa a full swimming scholarship. Between logging 33 miles a week in the pool and traveling for meets, Landa had to be good at time management. Now factor in coursework. For two years he juggled both BME and premed studies, while for the last two (when he was the swim team captain and MVP) he majored in electrical engineering.

“It taught me to be incredibly disciplined, and to think critically about everything,” says Landa. “That’s one of the most important skill sets you can get, and it’s served me well in my career.”

Landa started his career in high-tech sales, and with an aptitude for seeing the big picture, he quickly moved into business strategy, joining GE in San Francisco for several years. When the job required him to move to Milwaukee, he went to Hollywood instead. At Sony Pictures, Landa worked on the success-forecasting model that helped the studio decide whether to green-light films such as Men in Black and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Next, Landa did strategic planning for Universal Studios.

In 2001, Landa had a vacation coming up. While looking for a dog sitter for Max II, he struggled to find one who inspired confidence. So, instead of flying, Landa took Max II with him on a road trip to Colorado. Mulling this situation during a long stretch through the Utah desert, Landa hit upon a business idea that became The Pet Staff, Inc., a dog walking and pet sitting service with professional standards.

Landa eventually hired 200 sitters who made up to 12,000 pet visits a month—from walks to overnight stays—across greater Los Angeles. With highly trained staff and the first web-based scheduling system for pet care, the company earned a reputation for reliability among their clientele, which included studio heads, production folks, and on-screen talent such as Marisa Tomei (CFA’86, Hon.’02), Cybil Shepherd and Andrew McCarthy.

It was while running The Pet Staff that Landa discovered an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among domestic animals. “We were getting slammed with the demand for sitters who could give insulin and shots related to diabetic dogs and cats,” he says.

“That’s when the engineer in me came out,” Landa recalls. “I said, ‘There’s a root cause. Something is not right with the food supply.’ So, I started digging,” meeting with animal nutrition scientists and learning how the industry worked. “Within two weeks, I had picked up my life in Los Angeles and moved to Austin, Texas.” Landa launched Nulo in 2010.

Many big brands load up their pet foods with carbohydrates, though they obscure that fact with clever marketing and packaging that suggests a healthier diet, Landa says. “Pet foods do not follow human standards for labeling, as ingredients are listed by weight before cooking. If consumers were better informed as to a food’s nutrient composition as fed, they would likely avoid most popular brands on the market.”

With Nulo, Landa says, “I want every food we formulate to be high in meat, low in carbohydrates, and low-glycemic, as fed to the animal, because that’s more species-appropriate for dogs and cats. They’re not little kids, as much as we want them to be. They’re carnivores.”

“My engineering background allowed me to collaborate with nutritional formulators, because I speak their language,” Landa says. “We spent time iterating, iterating, iterating until we got the perfect platform.”

Above all, Landa says, “If I won’t feed it to Max the 4th and Yogi,” his two current black Labs, “I’m not going to sell it to somebody else.”

Still a regular swimmer and hiker, Landa reached out to athlete friends and fellow pet owners such as five-time Olympic gold medalist Aaron Peirsol to recruit brand ambassadors. The roster now includes 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps (who also invested in Nulo) and former NFL linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.

“Athletes understand how premium nutrition positively impacts their performance,” says Landa. “And this philosophy translates to their pets.”

That message has clearly resonated with a growing segment of pet owners. Nulo dog and cat foods are sold across the US and in seven other countries, and it’s one of the top-selling brands in specialty pet supply stores in major cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver, to name a few. Nulo’s company has grown to 75 employees (all of whom are free to bring their dogs to work), and Landa has racked up honors such as Austin Business Journal’s “Best CEO in Austin” and Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

Why are people so passionate about their animal companions?

“They make us happy, and they never complain,” says Landa. “They’re just a constant force of goodness, and I think people welcome that in their lives.”