Angus Brown - Co-Founder - Arepa
YOU CAN LISTEN TO OUR CHAT WITH ANGUS BY CLICKING HERE.
Arepa is a New Zealand based startup, best known for its performance enhancing drink, though it also produces capsules and powders derived from similar ingredients. They fall under the emerging category of nootropics or supplements in substances that claim to improve cognitive function.
Founded by Angus Brown and Zac Robinson, these guys really stand out with their innovative use of plant-based ingredients native to New Zealand and in Angus’ own words, it's to make brains work better.
So Angus, tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you spend your time?
Well, I was born in Palmerston North and then we moved around a bit and eventually settled, when I was quite young, in Hawkes Bay. My father was the headmaster of the high school that I ended up going to - Napier Boys. We were there for 20 years and I then went down to Canterbury University to study Engineering. After that I moved up to Wellington and transferred to Finance and Accounting.
Engineering was just, for me at the time, too hard to manage on top of semi-professional hockey. In my mind, I actually just wanted to be a full time DJ. I was living with marketing students and was trying to study engineering on top of that. I probably just wasn't smart enough. And so, I finished up. I'm really good at maths so I decided to study finance and accounting and then finished up the degree. But, I thought, I don't want to work in a bank, and I really like this idea of brands and so I went and started pitching for jobs at advertising agencies, because I figured that’d be something cool to do working with brands.
My Uncle, who's a pretty successful lawyer, asked me when I was going to get into FMCG and I thought it was an interesting idea. I started to think about it and thought that's a good mix of brands and business. So, I started applying for all the classic FMCG companies in the country and got a job working at Frucor. They have New Zealand’s biggest energy drink (they make V and they do My Zone, Fresh Up and Just Juice) and all these really interesting awesome legacy brands.
As a 21-year-old moving up to Auckland and working for the Big Green Machine, I thought this was pretty cool. At that point in time, a friend of mine’s father was the one of the Co-creators of Antipodes Water and I started becoming really fascinated with it. I became really interested in beverages and then worked at Frucor for a year.
In that year, Red Bull had sent a guy into space to do the world’s highest parachute jump. Red Bull became within 15 years a 3, 4, 5 billion-dollar brand (I think it's worth 15 now or even more, maybe 40) and I thought this is such a big market and so naively, I thought let's just sell more of this stuff.
Over the course of my late teens and then going through University, I started to experience what you put in is what you get out. Going through University, obviously you eat 2-minute noodles, and you drink beer and you think that you can still get up the next day and operate. Then slowly over time you realize that you're not a machine and so diet is really important. I'd lost a friend to mental health in high school, and then my first year selling V, I lost two grandparents to brain related illnesses.
So that was playing on me, but it hadn't really clicked just yet; then I remember selling a whole bunch of V into a supermarket and then watching a 10 year old girl walk out with one of the big 710 ml cans of the stuff and I thought ‘What am I doing?’ I'm selling caffeine and sugar essentially to the masses, and I don't think I'm doing that much good to the country. I'm just selling sugar and caffeine. I shouldn't be doing this.
Throughout university, I slowly started to realize the importance of health and how it impacts you. I started seeing friends struggle with anxiety and stress, transitioning from University into the working world and going to these interviews and trying to find flats, so it all started to compound for me.
I had this realization that I need to be doing something that's good. So, I went to the R&D department at Frucor and said, “I see that you know the energy drinks have become this massive market. Why can't we make something that can keep people calm and reduce their stress because everyone’s stressed out and we're over caffeinated. If they consume it regularly, why can't it be good for the brain health?”
I started to think why can't we make a healthy beverage out of unique New Zealand ingredients and then export it to world? Why can't we make essentially the next Red Bull, but good for you and good for your brain. The R&D guys were just “yeah, or you could just keep selling more V” so I thought “oh, OK, I'm going to go and do it myself”. And that's how it all started.
Then there’s Zac’s. We met at University. He is a super talented industrial designer and we kept in touch. He moved over to Sydney to work for quite a high-profile design firm and I called him one day saying “hey man, I've just been reminded that you're an industrial designer, I'm thinking about doing this brain drink to reduce your anxiety and keep you focused while being caffeine free and natural and good for you. Can you help me design a bottle?”
He was keen! He was having panic attacks in meetings and so he jumped on.
We had the first idea for this back in 2012 and that was us just kind of musing over futuristic bottle design. Then, I was fortunate to get a job working for the government in food tech at the Food Bowl New Zealand Food Innovation and then that's when things started to excel.
So, the patent and formula that you've got, I think it contains bark from pine trees for antioxidants? Is that right?
Antioxidants are like a descriptor for a range of polyphenols and other things, vitamins that have an antioxidant effect, but we don't really look at that effect when deciding on the formulation.
What we focus in on is plant-based ingredients that have proven evidence towards improving either cognitive performance or brain health. So, with pine bark and obviously a more focused lens towards what can be found and sustainably procured in New Zealand that’s plant based caffeine free ingredients.
So, the pine bark is used as a natural alternative to Ritalin for ADHD children. It's used in high doses for concussion recovery. It's a super interesting ingredient. It tastes horrible in beverages if you use it in high amounts. We had to work with a really clever natural flavor scientist to mask the bitterness and astringency that it provides so you can still get a pleasant taste when you consume our products.
But it's a super interesting compound. It's really rich in these polyphenols that are similar to what's found in chocolate. Essentially it helps to increase endothelial function, which is blood flow, which means you get an improvement in oxygen to the brain. When the brain is more oxygenated, it performs better under pressure and stress. So, it would be like giving your car racing engine fuel instead of regular petrol, for more cleaner burning and efficiencies.
Wow, that's a good analogy.
The patented formula contains that and it contains blackcurrants and more specifically, what we focus on, is unique to New Zealand blackcurrants. We call them neuro berries, that have got really interesting MAO inhibitor effects. The MAO. The MAO enzyme chews up serotonin and dopamine in the brain and it oxidizes. Everyone has this enzyme and it's active in normal amounts, but people who have depression, Parkinson's, dementia, Alzheimer's, Huntington's and a few other kinds of mental disorders or brain health disorders, this enzyme is prolific in it’s amounts. It's oxidizing as it's chewing up a lot of serotonins, dopamine.
So there’s this class of drugs called MAO inhibitors that were taken as medication for depression or for Parkinsons but they have got quite a lot of side effects. But these New Zealand blackcurrants that our grower produces (and is unique to the blackcurrant in the New Zealand blackcurrant industry) are working just as well as some of these MAO inhibitor medications.
But with hardly any of the side effects, they're doing it just as well as some of these medications. We've had early indications showing the efficacy and that's why we've been selected for a very prominent anti dementia study funded by Dementia Australia this year.
Wow, that’s incredible research. So, how much would I need to drink to see some of these benefits?
So, what we wanted to do is deliver a real time effect with a single dose. So, one bottle essentially can deliver this effect and there's literature out there supporting that. We’re undertaking our own clinical studies this year to prove that for the Mao inhibitor space. But what we've found, in another study that we will publish soon, is that a single dose of our single 300 ml bottle of our drink can improve working memory, memory retention, and multiscale entropy, which is really hard to explain.
So, we've managed to find a single dose that can provide a fix which is really hard to do for natural products outside of caffeine.
I'm often looking at your product thinking oh, is this something I’m meant to be drinking with my gin or am I meant to drink it with my health supplements in the morning. You sit in such an interesting space for your product You could sit in the nonalcoholic beverage section as well.
Maybe you do sit there as well just as the healthy version of something but are you going hardcore for the health? Is that where your true passion lies?
So, our purpose is to make brains work better. Our mission is to delay the onset of neurological decline worldwide through science backed highly accessible brain food, scalable brain food. And there's enough evidence that supports this. And, it’s backed up through our Chief Science officer who's one of the world's top neuroscientists in the space, Professor Andrew Scholey. If we can even push out neurological decline by one year through nutrition, which is very possible, we can save the world half a trillion dollars’ worth of economic burden that’s placed on these neurological conditions when they get to the end of life. So, that's like the big focus for us, we just want to be found everywhere.
We want to create beverages primarily as a formula to create convenience and accessibility around the world. And so, we're found at the moment, more typically in the Kombucha section, but we do have a lot of customers that would use us as a like a red wine replacement or an alcohol replacement in the evening.
And because we have L Theanine in our formula (an amino acid that's proven to reduce your anxiety without making you drowsy), it also improves your sleep quality so it's like a good kind of way to calm down, relax and unwind.
To get a better night sleep, we've got customers that take it for that. We never suggest combining us with alcohol or condone alcohol consumption though. We’re supposed to be pro brain health and alcohol is shown to age your brain significantly. Even 1 standard drink which is quite shocking.
It's interesting because I bought an Arepa drink today and I think psychologically, whether it was doing anything or not, I actually felt smarter.
There’s the added benefit of placebo on top that helps.
Exactly and how amazing it must feel to not only be building up a successful business, but you're also doing something that's positive.
That's the thing right, it keeps us going and we literally get customer feedback daily now. My mum's head of customer service, so she's receiving all these messages and she loves it. We'll get every day two, three, four people saying, “hey love your products, you know, little bit expensive, hard to open but I really need it. I've had a stroke last year and I genuinely have a better day with it than without”.
Or “my husband’s got dementia and he genuinely has a better of day on it than without” or “my daughter's got ADD” or whatever and so you get all this interesting feedback. There was a United Nations report in 2007 stating one in six people on this planet suffer from a neurological concern; so, if you think we're now in 2022, and we've had COVID stepped on top. I’m sure like me, like you guys, either yourselves or you would have friends or family that would have a neurological concern.
It's one of the biggest causes of disability worldwide, and so neurological concern we define as something as small as anxiety before a social event through to the more chronic depressing conditions, but it could be concussion recovery, it could be ADHD, or depression, Parkinson's. So, we want to create a science-backed food solution that can just help people, even a little bit. We want to be known as the company to go to for brain health.
I think for me just having that rubber stamp of world class scientists, neuroscientists onboard, it gives it that added authenticity.
If we're going to make the world’s smartest drink well, we need one of the world's smartest brains to help with this formulation. We did all this research, and all these signs were pointing to this neuroscientist that headed up the School of Human Psychopharmacology at Swinburne University in Melbourne. He is the 4th in the world for published research in the space of brain health through nutrition. He’s worked for every single company on this planet from Pfizer, Bayer Glaxo, Smith Kline to Unilever and Nestle. He worked at Nestle's head office in Switzerland on cocoa polyphenols.
He's this British kind of genius and he's got a really cool lifestyle in Melbourne. He is at Monash University as well as adjunct professor.
I came across him and introduced myself saying, “hey, I'm Angus from New Zealand. I know you work with these big guys. I've got this idea for this brand drink. Check out this really awesome futuristic bottle that we've visualized and created through Zach.”
“And I want to do a drink that’s good for brain health and we want to back it up by science. So, we need you to formulate it. So finally, we convinced him, it was less than $100,000, but it was more than $50,000 and that was the first bit of Angel investment that we had from Zach’s dad to get that formula. But once we had that formula, we had a 40 page plus report but with all the references it was around 170, so we had this asset.
We had the formula; we rushed home and ordered all the ingredients. We put everything in a bottle, and it tasted so bad because we were using heaps of these ingredients at higher levels. So, we then spent ages trying to make it taste nice without compromising on using natural safe ingredients. We found awesome natural flavors that binds to some of the proteins and helps to mask the astringency and bitterness.
We kept in touch with Professor Scholey over the years and I kept sharing with him some of the research that we were undertaking. He was really impressed with the research that we were doing, and we were being true to the science. We had a few breakthroughs and we published one study and then we were on the hunt for a chief science officer to help in nine research trial opportunities that we were seizing.
I reached back out to him and asked if he would be interested in working for us? He said he would, we did a deal and he's now our Chief Science Officer. What was kind of the most interesting was that two days after we signed him, Coca Cola head office in Atlanta tried to reach out to him and poach him to set up their own neuroscience division so we know we've got the right guy on board when that kind of stuff happens. He was like I don't want to go to Atlanta I'm happy here, I've got my research, I've got a lovely life in Melbourne and what you're doing is fascinating and what you're showing me with some of this MAO inhibitor work, this is on the frontier.
That was really cool to learn that he was keen to say no to one of the biggest drinks companies on the planet.
I'm sure he feels a little bit better about himself working for you guys versus the big black machine.
I’ll always remember my grandmother saying that brains are muscles, so it always must be used so she was always doing things to use our brain and to do research and studies and promote brain activity. Are there things you know where you exercise your brain as a muscle?
So, there are brain games. The jury's still out in terms of what is actually efficacious or not. Lumosity, even doing sudokus, there is some evidence out there. I must profess I'm not the expert in in this space. Our Chief Science officer is. He has got a bit of a grip on that, and we are wanting to in the next two to three years have a platform that can suggest options backed by science that we could recommend. They won't be designed by us, it will be other companies doing really awesome work, but we want to make sure that we're selecting the right ones. I know that that stuff is out there and there's also brain entrainment that we're looking into. The thing that I like the most about what I do with breathing is that it's free.
Anyone can do it and you can do it anywhere and you don't need a cell phone. And so, I really want to focus on the stuff that we're doing this year in terms of what we're suggesting. We have held a few breath workshops last year and for those that went it was game changing and it's a super free accessible thing to do, and so it's the easiest accessible, cheapest things that we can offer outside of our core range of food products and beverage products that can help people’s brains work better, so more to come on that.
For more information on Arepa you can visit them here.