Kottkamp departure from VR Labs raises concerns for Lee commissioners

Jeff Kottkamp

Jeff Kottkamp

Former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp has left his position as CEO of a Bonita Springs-based health drink company that so far hasn’t provided the jobs it was expected to create after taking a $5 million grant from Lee County.

Kottkamp’s departure from VR Laboratories has raised new concerns for county leaders about the company’s legitimacy.

“If VR Labs maintained any credibility to Lee County, it was because of the background and reputation of the CEO, Jeff Kottkamp,” Commissioner Frank Mann said. “Now with all the unanswered questions relating to the $5 million of county money they have, this certainly doesn’t help the situation.”

VR Laboratories accepted a $5 million economic incentive grant from the county with the promise of creating 40 full time jobs by the end of 2012 and 208 jobs by the end of 2016. But the money is nearly gone, few jobs have been created and the bottling plant that the company said it would open is in limbo.

The company has blamed the delay on a dispute with a contractor and the county has given it a one-year extension to keep its promises.

“I decided to leave VR Laboratories last month. I am focusing my career on the law and the legislative process,” Kottkamp said in an email. “I wish VR well. Their success will be good for the community.”

Kay Gow, chief administrative officer at VR Labs, said the company will begin searching for a new CEO immediately. In a prepared statement, Gow spoke favorably of Kottkamp, who served under then-Gov. Charlie Crist from 2007 to 2011.

“Mr. Kottkamp is a very talented person,” Gow said. “The VR Labs team will miss him but understands his desire to accept another opportunity.”

Attempts to reach Kottkamp for comment were unsuccessful. Gow couldn’t elaborate on what opportunity Kottkamp accepted.

VR Labs is in a heated court battle right now with the contracting company. Until that is settled, no progress is being made toward building the plant or releasing products. Gow said VR Labs will be releasing positive news in the coming weeks, but couldn’t detail what that is.

Lee County officials, who provided the grant from the an economic development fund, were not notified of Kottkamp’s decision to resign.

“We are concerned in a case like this,” Commissioner John Manning said. “I had no idea this was going to happen.”

Kottkamp’s decision to leave doesn’t have any immediate effect on Lee County since the issues are tied up in court, Mann said.

Kottkamp took the position with VR Laboratories in late 2011, after it had received the grant. His salary was $240,000 a year, according to documents the company submitted to Lee County officials. He was one of nine full-time employees the company hired after receiving the grant, according to a document VR Laboratories submitted to the county.

When Kottkamp was hired, the company earned some legitimacy, Mann said.

“Overall, this just makes me nervous as a commissioner,” Mann said. “More nervous that I was to begin with.”

John Sawyer, a former commission candidate and critic of the county’s relationship with VR Labs, said officials shouldn’t expect to get the money back.

“It’s gone, forget about it, long gone forgotten,” Sawyer said. “The (county) is anxious to get jobs, high tech jobs, but they’re okay with spending someone else’s money, so they don’t have to be so careful, I guess.”

VR Labs sells a dozen health drinks under the V!ah name brand; the company says its products help users with issues such as stomach acid, sleep problems, stress and lack of energy. The active ingredients listed on the products include a green tea extract and other botanical extracts. They are described as dietary supplements and their claims have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

While several other companies sell similar products with the same botanical ingredients, the company claims it has discovered a new way of extracting the health benefits from plants that makes them more effective.

Those claims, however, are dubious, said Paul Doering, a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy.

“I was pretty unimpressed,” Doering said, adding he has seen similar claims made by many others.

“It looks to me like, OK, same song maybe a different key this time,” Doering said. “If these dietary supplements really do what they claim to do, it wouldn’t be such a well-kept secret. There’s a Nobel Prize waiting for somebody’s mantel if they actually do these things.”

The company lists Yale professor James Rothman as its chief scientific adviser. Rothman didn’t return a phone message and an email sent last week seeking comment on the products.

Gow and her husband, Robert Gow, of Naples, earned their fortune through real estate development and investments. Robert Gow has also led companies that have had business ventures in China and Argentina. Robert Gow is the executive chairman of HerbalScienceGroup, LLC in Bonita Springs, which developed the extracts and licenses them to VR Laboratories.

HerbalScienceGroup’s website claims it has “accomplished one of the most important health technology breakthroughs in recorded history.”

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