And so far, Runa co-founders Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie are making impressive progress, having built a vertically integrated supply chain for guayusa from farms in Ecuador to shelves in the US and used the leaf as the cornerstone of a new range of teas and infusions (launched in 2010), ready-to-drink teas (spring 2012) and carbonated energy drinks (spring 2013), all in the space of five years.
They are also talking to leading herb suppliers, retailers and manufacturers of chocolate and energy bars interested in using the ingredient in a wide range of products under their own brands.
And they haven’t even hit 30 yet.
Look at coconut water. That changed the game in the hydration market. We want guayusa to do the same for energy
The Brooklyn-based firm doesn’t disclose revenues but it tripled its sales last year and expects to do so again this year, says MacCombie, who went to Ecuador in 2007 as a student at Brown University (he was studying conservation and marine biology while Gage was studying linguistics) and came back with the genesis of a business idea.
Today Runa is supplying organic and Fair Trade certified guayusa leaf - which can be made into a concentrate for use in ready-to-drink teas and other beverages - to multiple food and beverage manufacturers, and sells its own retail products under the Runa brand in Whole Foods, Safeway, Sprouts, Vitamin Shoppe, foodservice channels and lots of independent retailers.
It has also gone through the non-GMO Project certification process, which thanks to the challenges of securing sources of citric acid that meet the Project’s criteria proved to be much more arduous than he expected, admits MacCombie.
The taste: Remarkably smooth and slightly sweet
Now you don’t turn something most people can’t even pronounce - never mind recognize - into CPG dynamite overnight, but guayusa (pronounced ‘gwhy-you-sa’) ticks all the right boxes, MacCombie told FoodNavigator-USA.
Each 250ml can of Original Runa Clean Energy also has a very short ingredients list, featuring carbonated water, guayusa, citric acid and natural flavors, with 120mg of caffeine, 680mg of polyphenols and zero calories. The berry variant includes some sugar, and 75 calories, while the 414ml bottles have either zero calories or 50 calories, depending on the flavor.
“Guayusa contains caffeine, but it’s also got lots of antioxidants including chloragenic acids, isoflavones, and L-theanine, so you don’t get the jitters that you can get from coffee and regular energy drinks,” said MacCombie, who says Runa is now going through the process of securing self-determined GRAS for guayusa, although it has a long history of safe use.
“It’s also got no tannins, so you have a really clean taste that’s remarkably smooth and slightly sweet, and you don’t have to add a load of sugar to make it taste good. Yerba maté is great, but it has an earthier, bitter, flavor that not everyone likes.
“Look at coconut water. That changed the game in the hydration market. We want guayusa to do the same for energy, and we think this can be more than a niche natural product. Energy is a huge and fast-growing market, but not everyone wants to drink big brand energy drinks.
“We’ve got a completely new proposition.”
You’ve got to paddle a while before you catch a wave
He added: “I’d say that people in the industry are getting more familiar with guayusa now as we’ve been talking about it for five years. But there’s still a lot of work to do on the consumer education side.”
As for the challenges of launching any new beverage brand, he adds: “If I had a dollar for every investor we spoke to that told us we were entering a ‘very crowded market’, I wouldn’t have needed to raise any money. But you’ve got to paddle a while before you catch a wave, and we’re pretty impressed by what we’ve achieved so far.”
As for money, unlike many start-ups, which struggle to progress due to cash-flow problems, Runa has attracted not only celebrity supporters (actor Channing Tatum is a fan), but high profile financial backers as well, including beverage industry investors Zico founder Mark Rampolla and former Nestle Waters North American CEO Kim Jeffery; along with music industry execs Lukasz Gottwald (aka Dr. Luke), Mike Dean and Coran Capshaw.
What is guayusa?
Ecuadorian Kichwa people have been boiling guayusa leaves in water to make teas for thousands of years, while hunters call it the ‘Night Watchman’ because it helps them stay alert.
However, when Gage and MacCombie started writing their business plan for Runa (which means ‘fully alive’ in the Kichwa language) in 2008/9, there was not an established supply chain for producing and marketing the leaf locally, never mind to the US market, says MacCombie, who launched Runa with Gage in 2009 with a grant from the Ecuadorian government.
Today they work with 2,000+ indigenous farmers in Ecuador, who harvest the leaves and sell them to Runa, which dries and mills them in a processing facility in Archidona, in the Napo Province of Ecuador. The leaves are first withered (pre-dried) on long troughs to allow the flavor to set in and to reduce the moisture content of the leaf.
They then enter industrial batch dryers to fully dry out before they are, milled, sifted and packed into bags and shipped to the US. They then go through a concentration process so that they can be used in ready-to-drink products.