While coffee is most humans’ vice of choice for increased mental performance, we all can agree that it has its downsides. Once you’re in a couple of coffees deep, the caffeine-driven energy boost often gives way to less desirable side effects, such as jitters, a fast-beating heart and other anxious tendencies.
Meanwhile, the alternative – energy drinks – aren’t exactly packaged up in the healthiest way, considering they contain large amounts of sugar and preservatives. This gap in the market for a drink that increases mental performance without any of the unwanted consequences is where the idea for Arepa (alpha in Maori) was born.
Co-founder Angus Brown says it sparked from him working for a large multinational energy drink company, but not being fond of selling caffeine and sugar to improve cognitive performance.
“I lost a couple of grandparents to brain-related illness, and from there I also saw friends and family struggle with anxiety and stress, so I thought, ‘Surely we can make something that’s good for you and good for your brain’,” Brown says.
“Caffeine and energy drinks make you more alert, but don’t do anything for anxiety and stress levels – they exacerbate stress rather than helping manage it.”
Arepa is intended to be a focusing-yet-calming drink for people to consume to improve cognition functions before a stressful task, be it a social situation, public speaking event, or a sports competition.
It consists of a patented formula that uses New Zealand plant extracts of blackcurrants and pine bark, enzogenol (often used as a natural alternative for Ritalin), L-theanine (an amino acid and relaxing agent) and a rare amino acid extracted from green tea.
But while the drink’s intended purpose is clear, the process of getting the drink to market has been a journey – in part, due to Brown’s drive to verify and back up every claim with science.
The idea for Arepa was formed in 2012, and Brown formally launched the product alongside co-founder Zac in 2017. Prior to its launch, Brown was working as business manager at government-funded Auckland operation FoodBowl, an innovation facility that helps the growth of food and beverage businesses.
We want to become the world’s most iconic brain health brand and New Zealand’s version of Red Bull, but for good. Our vision is to empower people through mental clarity.
While working there, fittingly, Brown was able to chip away at the R&D on his mental clarity drink.
Due to the nature of the wellness market and businesses that have previously made dubious health claims – which has led to a negative perception of these kind of products – Brown says Arepa wanted experts on board right from the start.
This is why it chose to invest almost $500,000 of its money on R&D.
“We knew we would probably encounter scepticism, so that why we’ve spent close to half a million dollars on research and science,” Brown says. “A food and beverage company would normally just spend it on marketing and branding, and we might’ve been a bit further into the market by now, but we’ve got patents, clinical evidence, and a nice dossier of information, as well as anecdotal feedback from customers that there are actual effects.”
One of these investments includes research carried out by Andrew Scholey, director of the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology and a professor of behavioural and brain sciences at Swinburne University in Melbourne, who has worked with Nestle and Unilever in the past and came up with the suggested ingredients to put in Arepa.
Another investment is its clinical studies to show the effects of the drink. In its first study, Brown says the results showed that the drink had an acute effect in reducing nervousness and uncertainty while doing a task versus a placebo.
“Now, in a second clinical trial we’re hoping to show that drinking Arepa activates higher amounts of alpha brain wave activity, which relate to being in a state of flow, like in basketball hitting threes all the time or a musician that’s creating something off the cuff that’s awesome – you’re doing work and finding you’re doing it really well with minimal effort. That’s why we called the company that,” he says.
One of A?repa’s clinical trials
Come 2019, Arepa is now stocked in 70 New World supermarkets, Farro fresh stores, Huckleberry stores, and 300 cafes, as well as online. Alongside its drink product, it also sells nootropic capsules and powder.
Brown says the aim is to have the drink stocked in high-stress environments such as hospitals, universities and corporate spaces, while also making it accessible to weekend warriors.
The company has also raised just under $500,000 in two capital raises and within that, has partnered with the New Zealand companies supplying its pine bark extract and blackcurrant ingredients. As well as this, it was recently accepted into the Sprout Accelerator for agritech businesses for 2019.
Brown says while Arepa is the product at the end of the supply chain in terms of ag-tech, there is huge interest in Silicon Valley and further abroad in food tech, which is where Sprout saw Arepa’s potential. He points to Impossible Foods, which has over received over US$100 million in investment and counts 130 of their 180 staff as food technologists.
“People always need to eat and drink, so food is getting smarter and the way you make it right from the farm gate is changing rapidly, with massive disruption,” Brown says. “We have that vertical integration that goes back all the way back to the soil and an end-to-end platform, so it’s what can we do along that value chain as a business.”
He says the next focus for the company will be partnering with a global multinational, as well as getting further New Zealand and offshore investment to scale Arepa globally.
“With our patents, our exclusive use of pine bark and the scale we have – we can supply mental clarity to stressed Chinese university students, to corporate America.
“We want to become the world’s most iconic brain health brand and New Zealand’s version of Red Bull, but for good. Our vision is to empower people through mental clarity.”