I recently attended the StartX & StartX Med Demo Day where more than 30 founders presented new products. From a company that protects windshields using nanotechnology to a new smartphone app that replaces the stethoscope, StartX accelerates the development of innovative products by Stanford’s top entrepreneurs.
I caught up with Deven Soni, co-founder of a StartX company called Sprayable Energy. Sprayable Energy makes the world’s first topical caffeine spray, formulated to give you energy and alertness without the downsides of coffee and energy drinks. The product was developed by father and son biochemists Ben and Chongxi Yu, who partnered with Soni to build the company.
Soni got his start as a venture capitalist working largely with international startups. He sat down with me to talk about “being on the other side” and the challenges of developing and marketing an original product.
Where did the idea for Sprayable Energy come from?
I met Ben Yu, the creator of Sprayable Energy on a trip to Antarctica. We shared a cabin on the expedition vessel and discovered we had a lot in common, including our dissatisfaction with coffee and other energy products out there. Ben was sick of the digestive problems caffeine gave him so he created an alternative that would help him cram for school assignments.
After our trip to Antarctica we both went to South America to be part of a startup accelerator called Startup Chile. We decided to work together to create and market Ben’s sprayable caffeine idea. We spent a year in the lab developing and testing Sprayable Energy until it was ready to share with the world.
Why would consumers choose Sprayable Energy over a cup of coffee?
While we were at Startup Chile we worked with 100 other companies and had the opportunity to meet lots of people who were excited about our product. We found out that many people are caffeine sensitive. The amount of caffeine required for the cognitive benefits like alertness is less than 15 milligrams. A cup of Starbucks coffee averages 150 milligrams. We knew we needed to present Sprayable Energy to consumers as a safe and healthy alternative to coffee.
The type of person we are targeting is someone who has physiological or biological issues, like high blood pressure, and is told to cut down on their caffeine. Many people have an emotional relationship with coffee; they don’t want to give up their morning ritual or occasional cup ‘a joe. We couldn’t say we want to rid the world of caffeine and caffeinated energy drinks. But for people who don’t want to consume so much caffeine anymore we’re offering an alternative that gives you exactly the amount you need.
Our biggest challenge is changing behavior. People are used to being tired and consuming coffee to get more energy. But the biggest barrier to adoption is the delivery mechanism: the efficacy and health benefits of using something topically. People wonder, “Does this work? Is it safe?” We have to convince them that putting caffeine on your skin is healthier than ingesting it.
In the long term, we’re looking at finding ways to partner with companies and products that use the same delivery mechanism; partnering with cosmetic companies that sell skin products, for example. They’re intrigued. There’s not a lot of innovation among cosmetic companies but our product can potentially provide more value to their customers.
How did you make the leap from venture capitalist to entrepreneur?
It was a slow, gradual transition for me. I started in investment banking working with big companies. But I preferred working with smaller companies. I went to work for an early stage VC and I looked at where I wanted to be in 5 to 10 years. I wanted to be with the people who were building interesting things. I wanted to be less of an observer; more on the court than the bleachers.
There were major challenges to the transition. It was humbling. Working for a VC firm you get used to the credibility you earn because of your title. With a startup I had to prove myself. Plus there’s a lack of structure. There are so many things you should be doing, but you’re not sure how to prioritize. My role as an entrepreneur is less defined.
What advice would you give to others who are forming startups?
Many people start their own companies to get away from the boss, but you need to be prepared to create the management and structure your boss used to provide. Set up your structures early on and define roles, deadlines and goals as soon as possible.
The upside is there is a new challenge every day and the work never gets dull. I may not sleep as much as I used to but I feel more fulfilled.