A student startup that graduated from Troy’s IGNITEU NY early accelerator program last summer will soon launch the new health drink it’s been developing for two years with a lot of help from the Capital Region’s startup community.
Founded by University at Albany senior Luke Evans, ChugaChaga aims to churn out within weeks its first run of 15,000 bottles of tea made with chaga, an antioxidant-rich mushroom that has the appearance of blackened charcoal and grows chiefly on birch trees in northern climates. Shipping their product to a network of receptive specialty grocers and farmers markets, Evans and colleagues Marc Iskandar and Adam Kaiser will celebrate the major milestone toward which they’ve methodically working for two years.
“They’re a textbook example of a student-led business that’s made the most of the mentors, accelerators, and financial resources that’s available to young entrepreneurs in the Capital Region,” says Christine Tate, an angel investor who has been watching the company since the three partners decided to incorporate in mid-2014.
In addition to their seven-week experience with IGNITE U NY, ChugaChaga’s trajectory includes an early presentation at Startup Tech Valley, a first-place finish in the Capital Region semi-final of the New York Business Plan Competition, and a $35,000 Small Enterprise Economic Development (SEED) loan obtained last summer from SEFCU via the University at Albany’s Small Business Development Center.
Last fall, the founders of this student startup spent an intensive three months at Food-X, a New York City-based accelerator managed by SOS Ventures, the venture fund directed by Sean O’Sullivan, a MapInfo cofounder and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute alumnus. Evans and Iskandar earned earn University at Albany co-op credit for their Food-X participation.
Among the highlights of that experience was an invitation to Evans to fly to Santa Monica, Calif., to compete in BevNetLive’s New Beverage Showdown. That earned the team a shout out from Food Dive as a “new industry player to watch.”
Promoting Tea Tree as the “first organic and non-GMO certified chaga-infused beverage,” ChugaChaga just raised more than $16,000 in a Kickstarter campaign.
Long respected in Eastern Europe for its nutritional benefits, chaga is increasingly celebrated in the West as an immune-boosting super food. Studies have shown that chaga can inhibit the progression of certain cancers and activate subsets of immune cells, says Evans. “It’s packed with antioxidants and 215 phytonutrients that provide energy, mood, and cognitive enhancing abilities and a healthful way to deal with stress.”
Growing up near Woodstock, N.Y., Evans discovered the remarkable health benefits of chaga in 2010 while hiking with a friend in the Catskill woods. As a sophomore at the University at Albany a few years later, he persuaded Iskandar and Kaiser to join him in a series of chaga-collecting expeditions to the Catskills and Adirondacks.
By mid-2014, the three had learned enough about chaga and tested enough recipes for chaga tea to decide to go into business. They incorporated and trademarked their key intellectual property, including the ChugaChaga name and “Tea Tree” as their core product. They recently changed their tagline from “Live Life Passionately” to “Restore, Repair, Revitalize.”
And, thanks to their experience at Food-X, they’ve already planning their next big strategic move. Keep an eye out for Tea Tree K-cups.