The students all came from different universities and backgrounds—Daniel Porada, a neuroscience and behavior student at Columbia University; Charles Lankau, a biomedical engineering student from Georgia Tech; and Brandon Hall, a biochemistry student from University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Porada has had the idea to create an energy drink like Synapse for a while after learning about the ‘Krebs cycle’ in a biology class.
“I had thought about the possibility of creating an energy drink that harnesses the power of the Krebs cycle that improves the way your body produces energy instead of just using caffeine,” he said.
By ‘Krebs cycle’ he was referring to “the process by which cells produce energy in the body.”
“Caffeine just keeps you awake by blocking the signal in the brain that’s telling you that you’re sleepy. But all you’re doing is delaying the signal,” he added.
Racetams out, botanicals in
Porada met the other two co-founders during a medical internship at Wake Forest Innovations, a medical center where he collaborated with doctors to come up with technologies to improve the clinic.
He mentioned the drink idea to Hall and Lankau, who also happened to be nootropic hobbyists, having experimented with different ingredients discussed in forums and blogs that were purported to boost the brain.
The initial formulation included ingredients from the notorious ‘racetams’ group—a popular choice among nootropic hobbyists that the FDA has declared to not be a dietary ingredient.
It was only until their participation in a Georgia Tech accelerator program called Create-X when they realized that racetams were not legal dietary ingredients. “We had a moment of tremendous panic because we were three to four weeks into the program,” he said.
“We went through a day of complete crisis and turmoil where we actually went through and traced all the pathways in the brain that these racetams function on.”
With the help of a New York-based food science consulting firm called Siena Development, which the trio was connected through Create-X, they reformulated the product entirely using ingredients found only in nature.
The new formulation now includes the botanicals Huperzia serrata and Bacopa monnieri. “These are ingredients that have been known for centuries, used in Ayurveda and Chinese traditional medicine,” Porada added.
Route to market
Participation in Create-X brought the team $20,000 in startup funds and industry mentors to coach the team on everything from marketing to legal advice.
They also recruited a new team member, Shouvik Ganguly, who brings with him 18 years of experience with Coca-Cola.
Up next, the team is focusing on its next round of funding. Their next production run will include 60,000 cans with their new co-packing partner, AZ Pack, which is based in Tempe, AZ. The co-founders are focusing on scalability for the product as they look to drive their online sales.
Amazon Prime has been stocking Synapse for a few months, but the team wants to expand bricks-and-mortar distribution as a “unique value proposition.”
“Nootropics are available almost exclusively online,” Porada added. “The fact that this is a ready-to-drink product offers a particularly compelling market opportunity because we have access to the same distribution channels as you would have if you were making an energy drink.”
Up next: Taste tests and more funding
To differentiate themselves from the natural energy drink segment—a saturating category—the team wants to differentiate Synapse by focusing on narrower target audiences. This is done by retail placement.
An upcoming retail test will take place at 15 NewsLink locations across four major U.S. airports. The team thinks targeting the tired traveler will be a big hit. The co-founders also sampled Synapse with a focus group of Delta pilots, which was met with positive reviews.
College students like themselves are another target audience.
“We are really hoping to revolutionize the energy drink industry,” said Lankau. “Millennials and younger generations are looking for healthier options instead of caffeine. And what we can give them is natural energy with a great taste.”
According to Synapse, the company already has more than one third of the funds it needs committed. With Synapse’s next round of funding, the company plans to focus their efforts on their advertising and operational budgets.