Durham’s MATI energized by new flavors, wider distribution

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MATI, the former dorm-room startup that is marketed as a healthier alternative to Red Bull, Monster and other energy drinks popular with millennials, is heading into 2019 with a fresh look, its first zero-calorie flavors and a new office in downtown Durham.

The product changes, which will be introduced this month, come six months after CEO Eric Masters took the helm of the 20-employee company, which is now based at a recently opened WeWork coworking space. MATI also has a 30,000-square-foot production facility in Clayton.

MATI is made from fruit juices, carbonated water and a tea-like mixture produced from the leaves of guayusa, a holly tree grown in Ecuador. What sets it apart from other energy drinks is the unique methods by which it is sourced and brewed, a recently obtained organic certification, and a naturally occurring alkaline called theobromine, which is also found in chocolate and some teas.

“Theobromine acts as a natural time release for the caffeine, so that you do not get a spike or jittery when you first drink the MATI and you don’t get a crash at the end,” Masters says. A serving of MATI has about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.

“The current energy drinks that people think about — the Red Bulls, the Monsters, the Rockstars and all of that — while they are very well-known, actually very few adults drink them” because of concerns over synthetics and additives, he says.

MATI offers six flavors ranging from 40 to 90 calories each. Three new zero-calorie flavors — lemon-ginger, raspberry-mint, and grapefruit — will be introduced this month. The beverages are sold in grocery stores including Whole Foods and The Fresh Market, mainly in the Southeast; on Amazon.com; and on MATI’s website, where a 12-pack retails for $27.99.

Masters, whose background includes 10 years in marketing and brand management at Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., was an early investor in MATI, founded by former Duke University student Tatiana Birgisson in 2012. After Birgisson said in early 2018 she was stepping down, company board members tapped Masters as her successor.

Last fall, the company raised an additional $2 million from existing investors with proceeds used to expand into additional natural-foods stores in the Southeast and along the East Coast, and in more of what Masters calls “immediate-consumption” channels — cafeterias, college campuses, etc.

Establishing a relationship with WeWork is important too, Masters says, “because we know that [at work] is a big occasion for MATI. People will turn to MATI instead of an afternoon coffee or an afternoon soda.” Though no agreement is in place, MATI has talked with the coworking giant about making its beverages available at WeWork locations. The New York-based company has 537 offices in 96 cities.

Birgisson attracted much attention in 2015 when she won Google Demo Day, an annual pitch competition at the tech giant’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. AOL co-founder Steve Case, one of the contest judges, invested $100,000, while Forbes named her to its 30 Under 30 list in 2017, the same year the company raised $5 million.

Though Birgisson is no longer involved with MATI — her LinkedIn page says she is a consultant at McKinsey & Co. — Masters still talks to her regularly and considers her a friend.

Since joining MATI in July, he is optimistic about the company’s expansion potential.

“We are already the No. 2-selling drink in the category at Whole Foods in the Southeast channel as a whole. That’s just indicative of how much consumers love us, and indicative of the opportunity as we continue to expand and grow into other retailers and other outlets.”

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