Tatiana Birgisson still gets excited about the prospect of free pizza.
Sitting in her small square office in Durham, the twenty-six-year-old Duke graduate has recently returned from a luncheon hosted by American Underground, the downtown start-up incubator. She listened to some speakers and ate free food from a spread overflowing with rosemary potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and bruschetta. Her eyes light up as she tells me about the unexpected extravagance.
"It was the best catering I've ever had," she says. The half-Icelandic, half-Venezuelan founder of the young energy drink company MATI brushes her dark hair from her eyes and flashes an assured smile. "I would have been good with pizza."
Across the little room, a collection of bottles sits on a floating shelf. It's the de facto timeline of her company's three and a half years, from initial product mockup to the most recent iteration. The new ones are the same bottles found in Whole Foods and, come May, in four hundred Kroger stores across the mid-Atlantic region. A new distribution agreement with Anheuser-Busch means that Birgisson will soon deploy cases of her energizing tea to convenience stores, food truck rodeos, Publix, and Earth Fare. With their colorful branding and images of effervescent fruit, the bullet-shaped cans look like standard-issue energy drink vessels. But what's inside could alter the entire industry.
What started in Birgisson's dorm room took the top prize at last year's Google Demo Day, where entrepreneurs pitch their concepts to top investors. She is using a $100,000 personal investment from AOL cofounder Steve Case to open a thirty-thousand-square-foot production facility in Clayton this month, where she will produce her semisweet tropical-, cherry-, and citrus-flavored sparkling teas. MATI is already the best-selling energy drink in Whole Foods' southeast markets. With the new manufacturing facility, Birgisson plans to produce thirty thousand cans per month.
The timing could barely be better, as beverages are evolving to reflect a society more in tune with where ingredients come from and what they do. First, there were the attempted soda taxes in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco (which now requires warning labels on ads for sugary drinks). Coca-Cola acquired Honest Tea in 2011, and it became a $130 million division of the empire. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites a 39 percent drop in added calories from soda since 2000. Boxed OJ is trading places with fresh-pressed kale juice, Diet Coke with coconut La Croix.
It's here that Birgisson finds her sweet spot.
"I think MATI is well-timed, as younger people want to be able to work hard but not compromise by consuming unhealthy chemicals found in other energy drinks," says Adam Klein, chief strategist at American Underground. He's watched the company grow from within the walls of his organization. "People are drawn to MATI because it's a classic David-versus-Goliath story. She's taking on the big beverage brands that push unhealthy drinks and beating them with a superior product."