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Student juice venture earns Embark Fellowship

Lam ’15, Tran ’15 develop juice from Vietnamese superfruit, receive $25,000 to find investors

Last month, XOI Juice, founded by Myron Lam ’15 and Linh Tran ’15, earned one of the Swearer Center for Public Service’s three Embark Fellowships, which support ventures founded by graduating students, said Alan Harlam, director of the Swearer Center’s Social Innovation Initiative.

XOI is a juice beverage made from gac, a fruit indigenous to Vietnam that boasts 70 times more lycopene than tomatoes and 10 times more beta-carotene than carrots, Lam said.

“Benefits of gac include prostate health, skin health, eye health, heart health, immunity, and it has anti-aging qualities,” Lam said.

XOI’s business plan centers on working with ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam to cultivate and process gac and bring it to the United States as a juice beverage, Tran said. But due to the risk associated with new ventures, Lam and Tran will not work directly with these communities for about five years, instead sourcing their gac from a Vietnamese company.

The Embark Fellowship, which is in its pilot year, provides Lam and Tran with direct funding and fundraising opportunities, which combined allow them to work full time on their venture for up to one year, Harlam said. The fellowship functions as a challenge grant: Individuals receive $20,000 toward an ultimate goal of $35,000, while teams receive $25,000 toward $50,000, he said. Crowdfunding campaigns for the fellows begin Friday.

Finding the superfruit

Lam and Tran were inspired to found XOI after living with the ethnic minority community in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam during summer 2013. The pair wanted to act to help mitigate inequality between the developed, urban areas of Vietnam and the poor living conditions of the ethnic minority in the Highlands, they said.

“We didn’t know exactly what they needed, so we spent some time there to learn about their living conditions, what they want, what their dreams and aspirations are,” Tran said.

At that time, Lam and Tran’s homestay mother introduced them to the gac fruit and explained her struggles as a farmer in the region, one of the most underdeveloped in Vietnam. 

Though Tran, who is Vietnamese, had heard of gac before, she was not aware of its health benefits, as it is traditionally used as food coloring in Vietnam. After their host mother showed them a gac fruit, she and Lam researched it and discovered it is considered a superfruit, Tran said.

Their host mother also expressed her dream of becoming a businesswoman but identified two seemingly insuperable obstacles: her inability to manufacture and process raw produce or access the markets, which are dominated by middlemen upon whom the farmers rely.

“The social mission and the reason we founded XOI is because of these two issues that she described. We wanted to somehow be the bridge between the markets and her agricultural produce,” Lam said.

Lam and Tran then decided to create a juice from the gac fruit and founded XOI in hopes of empowering the ethnic minority community, Lam said.

Fellowships, mentorships and relationships

With the help of funding from the Social Innovation Fellowship and the Royce Fellowship, two other Swearer Center grants they received last spring, the two returned to Vietnam this past summer, learning more about gac, how it is cultivated and how it is processed.

The Social Innovation Fellowship is “a year-long platform to design or build a social impact venture,” Harlam said. The fellowship provides not only a stipend to work on the venture over the summer but also a network of mentors  and workshops that build skills and knowledge, he added.

The Royce Fellowship “supports students who are doing research that has public usefulness,” Harlam said, adding that fellows receive a stipend for independent projects over the summer and mentorship from a faculty fellow. 

But the Embark Fellowship provides a platform for Lam and Tran to take their project to the next level, transforming it from an undergraduate experiment into a potential career in entrepreneurship.

“The Embark Fellowship gives us a lot of opportunities,” Tran said. “Now that we have some financial capacity, it is a push to continue with what we’re doing. It’s a big milestone.”

When selecting Embark Fellowship recipients, the Swearer Center seeks “to find the best ideas that Brown is developing and to help launch them into the world,” Harlam said.

Harlam stressed that pushing an entrepreneurial project to the limits of its potential is only feasible after graduation, when students are not burdened with a heavy course load and other extracurricular activities.

Providing fellows with funds for one year is crucial, Harlam said, as the first year affords them the opportunity to “determine whether the idea is viable and can support itself with independently raised funds.” Ventures in their earliest stages often struggle to draw funding beyond friends and family, which can make it difficult for students to launch a project without alternative sources of income, he added.

In vying for an Embark Fellowship, Lam and Tran faced a “highly competent panel” made up of “judges who spend their professional lives investing in early-stage companies,” Harlam said. “They’re both really coachable, incredibly hard-working and really determined to work through all the obstacles they will definitely encounter along the way to make this venture successful,” he added.

Creative juices flowing

After spending last summer in Vietnam and receiving the Embark Fellowship last month, Lam and Tran are now working on refining their product and raising funds to support it.

Tran said she and Lam have realized developing juice flavors is “not (their) specialty,” and they intend to outsource production to a third party company.

Nonetheless, initial focus groups offered the juice that Lam and Tran made themselves have reacted positively to gac’s mild flavor, which can be mixed easily with other fruits, Tran said.

With the help of funds provided by the Embark Fellowship and the money they will raise through their crowdfunding campaign, Lam and Tran plan to focus in their first year on product development, which will entail marketing and offering free samples. They hope to raise enough money to produce a first batch of approximately 55,000 bottles of XOI Juice this year.

“We need to educate the consumer about what gac is first, because no one knows about it in the U.S. So we need to focus on marketing and education, and at the same time create enough traction to get into a few stores in Boston,” Tran said.

Initially, because of gac’s benefits to the prostate and heart, Lam and Tran said they will market XOI toward men. Most drinks targeting male consumers are alcoholic or carbonated energy drinks, while most healthy juices are targeted at women, Lam said.

“The beverage industry is really crowded, so we needed to find our niche,” Tran said. “But our long-term vision is to expand it also to women and the more general public.”

Because their initial demographic is health-conscious men, Lam and Tran intend to market XOI in both grocery stores and fitness centers as well as at sporting events.

For the first five years of the venture, Lam and Tran plan to supply the gac for XOI from a Vietnamese company rather than farmers from the ethnic minority community, Tran said. This will provide them with time to conduct a market valuation before bringing the community’s farmers into the mix.

“We don’t want to risk involving the community initially if we don’t know that the market will be interested in the new product,” she said.

By year five or six, when they hope to have positive cash flow, Lam and Tran said they will shift from using a company to creating a supply chain that starts with the ethnic minority community.

XOI’s crowdfunding campaign launches today on Indiegogo.

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