Global pharmacy group Walgreens Boots Alliance has kicked off a sales process for its UK-based sports nutrition brands.

The Grocer understands WBA has hired Spayne Lindsay to handle a sales process for its PhD Nutrition and The Protein Works brands, which have combined sales of around £33m.

The pharmacy giant bought both brands via its short-lived B&B Investments venture capital arm, with PhD acquired in late 2014 and The Protein Works a year later. B&B Investments has since been wound down and it is understood WBA has taken the decision to exit the assets it sees as “non-core”.

PhD is the more mainstream retail-focused of the brands, building listings at the big four and Ocado, with recent sales boosted by the release of its Smart-branded range of high-protein, low-sugar bars, snacks and drinks last year. Companies House accounts show it generated £18.3m of sales in the year to 31 August 2017 and a pre-tax profit of £1.2m.

The Protein Works focuses on direct-to-consumer sales via its website and had sales of £10.9m in its most recent financial year, making a pre-tax loss of £1.6m.

It is understood PhD sales have grown to around £21m and The Protein Works to around £12m in the current year, with the latter back at break-even.

An IM for the brands has been sent out and the sales process will kick off in earnest in the autumn.

City sources suggested likely buyers included mid-market UK private equity firms and trade players active in the sports nutrition space such as Samworth, Associated British Foods and Kerry Group.

German group Kruger is also a likely contender, having bought rival Maximuscle and smoothie powder company Shrewd in the past year. There have been a number of other recent transactions in the space as sports nutrition has moved into the mainstream. ABF bought High5 and Reflex Nutrition last year, while Lion Capital acquired Grenade.

One source cautioned the sector remained fragmented, with a large number of competing mid-sized brands making it tough to drive scale.

However, another pointed to the category’s double-digit growth, suggesting more opportunities to sell into mainstream retailers.

PhD was the first acquisition via B&B Investments vehicle launched by Alliance Boots in 2013 under experienced PE executives Jean-Philippe Barade and former Findus chief executive Chris Britton. However, the merger with Walgreens signified a strategy shift and the VC arm was dissolved in 2016.

It is thought the two brands have been run relatively autonomously since their acquisitions.

WBA declined to comment, as did Spayne Lindsay.