Two years ago, Daniel Porada was sitting in a biology class at Columbia University when he came up with the idea for Synapse. He saw a way to leverage the krebs cycle (the process by which cells generate energy) for an energy drink. This basic biological process could take the place of caffeine and help keep people awake.
At the end of the semester, Porada headed off to a medical internship at Wake Forest Innovations, a medical center where he collaborated with doctors to come up with technologies to improve the clinic. That’s where he met Charles Lankau, a biomedical engineering student from Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, and Brandon Hall, a biochemistry student from UNCW, who were also in the internship program. Porado mentioned his energy drink idea, and together they had enough experience with biology and neuroscience to create Synapse, an energy drink that optimizes brain function through high-performance nutrient ingredients.
First, Porada , Lankau and Hall worked on the drink’s blend, composed of nootropics – supplements that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity or motivation. Also known as “smart drugs,” the nootropics are then mixed with other natural ingredients to create a great taste, without the caffeine.
“The differentiating factor between us and other nootropics companies is that none of our ingredients, including the nootropics and flavors, are synthetic,” said Porada. “We wanted to create a health-conscious option for people who do not want to sacrifice their health for performance.”
Nootropics and other ingredients in the drink are grown in the ground, giving them a strong bitter taste, so the team leveraged novel manufacturing to ensure it tasted good as well.
“Synapse is technically a supplement, which doesn’t have to be approved by the FDA,” explained Lankau. “We use GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) facilities that are FDA licensed with GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) ingredients. The ingredients in our blend are naturally part of the human diet; they just exist in our product in greater proportions than they do in food.”
After the idea and drink blend for Synapse became a reality, the co-founders realized they needed a way to take this product to market. Lankau had heard of the CREATE-X program at Georgia Tech that would enable them to turn their idea into a real, viable company. It would also provide $20,000 in startup funds and industry mentors to coach the team. Columbia and UNCW didn’t have program that would allow students to launch their startup, so CREATE-X was the perfect answer. He applied to the program, and the team was accepted.
With CREATE-X, the team was able to gain valuable guidance from industry veterans with experience running successful companies. They also received startup capital and legal advice.
“Without CREATE-X, we wouldn’t have been able to get our company off the ground,” said Porada. “Especially for a physical consumer good like ours, there has to be a certain amount of capital invested up front. The legal resources from CREATE-X were also critical, as we navigated regulations on product blend.”
Today, Synapse is doing well and focusing on their next round of funding. Their next production roll-out will include 60,000 cans with their new co-packing partner, AZ Pack. The co-founders are focusing on scalability for the product as they look to drive their online sales.
“A few months ago, we began selling Synapse on Amazon Prime,” said Porada. “We’ve successfully converted our website over to Fulfillment by Amazon, greatly reducing shipping costs to our consumers and improving the scalability of our eCommerce.”
Retailers around Atlanta are selling the drink as well. Savi Provision in Inman park, a premium Atlanta grocer, has a standing order with the startup. In addition to selling on campus at Georgia Tech, the co-founders are in talks with other universities across the state to market products to students who need to focus while studying. There are other natural energy drinks out there, so Synapse really has to differentiate itself through their target market.
“Our biggest target audience is students,” said Lankau. “Another thing CREATE-X helped us do in the beginning was customer discovery. We figured out what our target consumers wanted in an energy drink and how to reach that core demographic in an effective way.”
The Synapse team has been able to navigate challenges in both scalability and distribution. So next up is marketing and sales proliferation. 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 demoed Synapse to a focus group of Delta pilots, which was met with positive reviews.
“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.”
With Synapse’s next round of funding, the company plans to focus their efforts on their advertising and operational budgets. They already have more than one third of the funds committed and would like to close the rest as soon as possible, so they can get to work on the exciting next phase of the business.