This is the first in a series of profiles on the first four women to be mentored by SOAR, a new Triangle area organization to help female entrepreneurs raise capital and grow their companies. SOAR is funded by Google for Entrepreneurs as part of its #40Forward initiative to support women in startups.

A beverage industry exec once told Mati Energy founder Tatiana Birgisson she’d need $1 million to get cans of her all-natural tea-based energy drink on the shelves of grocery stores.

The comment scared the young startup founder two years ago, but today she can laugh. She hadn’t raised any money when she sold her first keg of Mati to the startup Shoeboxed in 2012. And Mati was already on the shelves of seven Whole Foods stores by the time she raised $120,000 from friends and family last fall.

Now, she’s ramping up to fulfill orders of the $2.50-$2.70 drink for more than 75 Whole Foods stores across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic by year’s end. In the Triangle, Mati is one of the best selling energy drinks in the healthy grocery store’s chain.

“We’re definitely pushing buttons,” Birgisson says. And she’s done it with less than $150K in funding.

But further growth will require more money, Birgisson acknowledges, and so she’s happy to have been selected one of four women to receive a year of mentorship from SOAR. The new Google-sponsored female founder mentorship program has a goal to help at least one woman raise funds by summer 2015.

Could it be Birgisson?

SOAR co-organizer Lauren Whitehurst is pretty bullish.

“She could start to take share in the energy market and grow the market,” Whitehurst says. “She’s identified a formula that has really interesting natural attributes that make it a no-compromise energy drink. There is nothing out there like that.”

The vision

Birgisson is innovating at the right time.

The global energy drink market is projected to grow more than 13 percent by 2018, according to a recent report by analysts at London-based TechNavio. That’s largely because brands are starting to use natural ingredients, the report says.

Her tea also counts as a “functional beverage,” a category of the natural foods industry growing about 20 percent a year. Brands offering health benefits are being gobbled up by major beverage companies—Coca Cola has acquired Honest Tea and ZICO and Campbell’s purchased Bolthouse Farms.

But Birgisson believes her beverage is especially unique—there’s no other tea-based energy drink on store shelves. She uses leaves from a plant grown in Ecuador called guayusa, the second-most caffeinated plant in the world behind coffee. She combines it with all-natural, organic orange, apple and lime juices and then pumps it with carbon dioxide. The fruity flavor and carbonation attracts non-tea drinking men to the beverage.

And the method she’s perfected with the help of Triangle Brewing in Durham maximizes the amount of nutrients and antioxidants that can be drawn from the tea leaves, helping to attract non-energy drink consumers. Based on her research and widely accepted industry measures, she draws 40 percent more caffeine and antioxidants from each leaf than competitors. That means one can of Mati has the same amount of caffeine as a cup and a half of coffee, but guayasa offers a more steady and lengthy energy boost versus the quick rush and crash caused by other energy beverages, Birgisson says.

Here’s a video of the process:

in September 2013 (she changed the label again in April 2014, pictured above). She could guarantee those cans would stay fresh for 10 weeks if refrigerated.

She hopes to soon purchase a pasteurizer which would increase the shelf life to six months and not require Mati cans to be refrigerated.

She’s also experimenting with new flavors—cherry or mixed berry could be next. A major growth challenge has been lack of shelf space. That can be gained with a bigger product line, Birgisson says.

What SOAR can do.

Birgisson is already taking advantage of the SOAR relationship. Within a week of her first meeting with mentors Whitehust and John Austin, whose day job is running Groundwork Labs, she’d learned all of the regulations required to work with a new supplier, an issue that Birgisson admits was very worrisome.

She expects the relationship to help her figure out financial modeling and raise a significant amount of funding to grow her team and expand distribution across the East Coast. Her existing distributor to Whole Foods also has Kroger as a client—the pasteurization process will be key to winning the grocer.

In 2015, she’ll attend the Fancy Foods show and Natural Products Expos on the East and West Coasts, important events for the natural foods and functional beverage industries.

But her biggest goal is simple: to grow organically.

“We need to keep growing so we can really show we’re jot just a local brand but we have national, international potential,” she says. “That is the push for getting into more stores and really growing.”

Laura Baverman

Editor
Laura Baverman manages the day-to-day at ExitEvent, writing and editing stories, lining up contributors, overseeing events and representing us in the community. Laura has spent a decade in journalism, most of those years as a business reporter in her hometown Cincinnati. Her Ohio roots run deep, but she's learning to love the South. Especially sun, all months of the year.