By Fred Grier
Meet Edward Muallem and Yaniv Shemesh, two UC San Diego juniors who have launched a beverage company to create a premium healthy energy drink. Muallem, a biology major, joined forces with Shemesh, an economics student, to launch Mi Mate, an authentic organic yerba mate. Their mission is to fuel teams in the startup ecosystem with natural energy as an alternative to traditional caffeine.
We chatted with Muallem and Shemesh about their entrepreneurial journey and the foundation they are building to turn their idea into a reality.
Year Founded: 2017
Ingredients: Two-year-aged Paraguayan Yerba Mate with fresh mint and fresh lime juice. Contains as much caffeine as three shots of espresso, 169 antioxidants, 24 vitamins and minerals, and 15 amino acids.
Headcount: Two full-time founders & two founding employees
Funding: Mi Mate has not raised any funds to date. “We have been bootstrapping it through this first production run, relying on money we won from acceptance to various incubators, pitch competitions, and challenges,” Shemesh said. The startup is also part of the 2018 National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps cohort program, which includes a $1,000 grant and guidance from established entrepreneurs.
Product: Mi Mate is an organic, cold-brewed, ready-to-drink Paraguayan yerba mate tea. The startup is focused on authenticity and cultural competency, so its yerba mate is cold-brewed without any sugar or sweetener, using only two-year-aged Paraguayan mate and traditional infusions.
Origin: Mi Mate was developed after Muallem and Shemesh took a backpacking trip to Paraguay, from the bustling city of Asunción to the hills of the Alto Paraná. There they experienced tererè, an infusion of yerba mate, similar to mate but prepared with cold water and ice rather than with hot. They also learned about the culture of yerba mate, realizing Americanized yerba mate was nothing like the real thing.
Sustainability: The family-owned farm where Mi Mate harvests from is one of Paraguay’s largest nature preserves, saving over 2,500 acres of indigenous Atlantic rainforest from deforestation and poaching. “For us, sustainability isn’t a buzzword; it is an issue of survival for all living species,” Shemesh says.
Mate Touch: When asked how Mi Mate will stand out on the shelves, Muallem says natural energy is the secret ingredient. “If you taste a bottle of Mi Mate, it tastes nothing like our competitors and we are very proud of that. Many other American yerba mate companies use mate extract, which is essentially a natural flavor. Our product is the real deal – Yerba Mate sourced ethically and sustainably, paired with authentic infusions. We are the first beverage company to consider seasonality and locality,” he says, adding that many of the startup’s flavors will only be available part of the year to ensure maximum freshness.
Learning Curve: Looking at the beginning stages of Mi Mate, Shemesh stresses that everything they learned was self-taught. “For us, it was more, what would be the first step? The answer ended up being, reaching out to people who have already been in our shoes.”
Foundation: When asked about the foundation they have been able to build for their startup, the founders explained they are lucky to have several mentors in the beverage industry. They have also made solid connections in the food science field, working with professors at Chapman, USC, UC Davis, and Cal State Fullerton. “(Our mentors) have been incredibly helpful in making introductions, connecting us to resources, and giving us the inspiration to build a successful company,” Muallem says.
Tenacity: Reflecting back on how they developed relationships with many C-level executives in beverage, Muallem says, “Some of our best experiences have come from being truly fearless and just introducing ourselves. A great opportunity for us to make that happen was at Natural Products Expo West.”
Customers: Mi Mate’s target market is college students, young mothers, and young professionals. “We want to provide them with a caffeinated alternative to unhealthy energy drinks and jittery coffee,” says Shemesh.
Calling All Startups: Mi Mate is partnering with 25 startups in the San Diego community, providing its products “at-cost” for a year. “We piloted this program a month ago and startups absolutely loved it.” Muallem says. “Seven of the eight startups we tested this with have partnered with us because their team loves the product and it has seriously boosted their net productivity.” That partnership entails a small-scale pilot of Mi Mate’s cost subscription program.
What’s Brewing: This December, Mi Mate will launch its first flavor, Classico, with fresh mint and a hint of lime, and it will be available in local stores and coffee shops, as well as on Amazon. By March 2019, Shemesh shares that Mi Mate is planning to launch three new flavors: Mate Quemado, Quince Vanilla, and a Chamomile Citrus organic yerba mate.
San Diego Scene: When asked whether San Diego has the ecosystem to sustain beverage startups such as Mi Mate, Shemesh responds, “San Diego has the incredible privilege to be a hub of food and beverage. San Diego has always been the spot for craft brewing, but increasingly, more non-alcoholic beverage companies are calling San Diego home.”
Over the past few years, healthy alternative beverage companies such as Suja Juice, Bootstrap Kombucha, VitaCup, ShakeSmart, and Boochcraft have sprouted up in San Diego. According to Muallem, “We are proud to be a part of the entrepreneurial community. It is what we rely upon every day. Without having mentors from The Basement like Silvia Mah and Christine Liou and all of the other people who have helped us along the way, we would not be here.”
The Buzz: Ever since a natural energy beverage startup took the top prize during Google Day in 2015, investors and entrepreneurs alike have been paying close attention to food and beverage startups, which, they say, are poised to become major industry disruptors. Mi Mate plans to be one of them.
“Mi Mate is about to be the biggest disruption the energy drink space has seen – no juice concentrates, no unpronounceable chemicals, no sugar (including non-nutritive sweeteners), no added natural or artificial flavors, plus it has as much or more energy than most caffeinated beverages/ energy drinks on the market, and it’s affordable,” Shemesh says. “We are democratizing the clean/natural/real energy drink market by selling at or below the cost of traditional energy drinks like Monster and Red Bull.”
Taco ‘bout a Recommendation: In San Diego, entrepreneurs and tacos go hand-in-hand. Muallem and Shemesh both agree that their favorite taco joint is Tacos Los Poblanitos, just south of the border. “There are entire religions founded on miracles more insignificant than the roma tomato salsa at Los Poblanitos,” Muallem says. “Woodfire grill, $1 tacos, $2 tortas – what more could you want?”
Editor’s note: Triton Tech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on UC San Diego students (current and alumni) who are blazing a trail in technology and entrepreneurship. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work and problem-solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.