Ayurveda vs modern science is an eternal debate. Adopting the best of both worlds, Ankur Goyal, a Stanford graduate and Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, blends Ayurveda and modern science to manufacture ‘Bioactive lifestyle beverages’ for women.
Goyal’s brainchild is Merhaki Foods and Nutrition, and through the brand ‘&ME’, the company targets solving lifestyle challenges and discomforts associated with menstruation, beauty, fat metabolism, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), and more.
Launched in September 2017, the company manufactures beverages (costing Rs 80 each), contain less than 80 calories, account for 30% of daily nutrition needs, and comprise only natural ingredients and no preservatives.
In an interaction with SMBStory, Ankur Goyal, Founder, of Merhaki Foods and Nutrition, says, “By talking to as many people as I could, I had heard more than 110 women's problems being discussed. So, my market size is defined by the large problem size that we are addressing.”
Excerpts from the conversation:
SMBStory: What inspired you to create health beverages for women?
Ankur Goyal: One day, I saw my parents taking a protein supplement. I noticed my mom had filled the glass with very little milk and added the supplement. On the other hand, my dad had filled the glass with milk and then added the supplement.
I noticed how differently they consumed it. I asked myself, ‘It's the same product, but why is it consumed differently?’
My mother didn't like the smell and taste of the supplement, and wanted to gulp it down in a single go, whereas my dad didn't mind the taste. They couldn't avoid it altogether. Being vegetarians, they needed the protein not easily available in their normal diets. My mom also had osteoporosis and needed calcium and iron supplements.
Also, my sister was pregnant during the time and needed more calcium. However, she disliked dairy products. From here, my journey into balancing nutrition with taste began.
A large number of women have to deal with osteoporosis, anemia, and other nutritional issues. I asked myself if I can solve these for women not with medicine but with a lifestyle change. After talking to hundreds of women facing these problems, I realised that merging Ayurveda with modern science might result in the solution I was looking for.
Ayurveda can boost absorption of nutrition in the body as well as improve the emotional and psychological state of a person. Nutrition can boost physical and physiological changes.
SMBS: What happened in the time between your moment of inspiration and the formal launch in September 2017?
AG: I have been in the food industry for 8 years, and worked with companies such as Nestle and Paper Boat and set up their R&D centers and factories. During my time at Stanford University, I always knew I wanted to start my own venture in the food industry. I just didn't know where and how. My internships gave me exposure on consumer products and machines, and I also noticed the popularity of the Ayurveda movement in India.
At Stanford, most entrepreneurs from my MBA course followed the technology path, so there were very few of us passionate about FMCG. As a result, the challenges in bringing people together were greater, but it was extremely rewarding. Meeting with and discussing with startups in the same ecosystem gave me more courage and strength to start my own venture.
Once I came back to India, and prior to the official launch, we had begun product development. The first attempt at mixing herbs with minerals and vitamins resulted in a scary product which none of us dared to taste. Through one-and-a-half years of research, we came closer to achieving the balance between the herbs, minerals, and vitamins that go into a product. We recently began our sales process.
Our key selling point is this balance that our products have: tasty, as well as medicinal and nutritious. I was able to find the balance between taste, 12-15 micronutrients and five to six herbs after a lot of refinement.
We have done over 10,000 iterations on our products during the development stage. This balance is a de-risking factor for us against others who might try to perform similar experiments.
SMBS: How do your products focus on women?
AG: Our range of &ME Rhythm products are aimed at women's lifestyle issues from puberty to menopause. Consider how people administer ginger, beetroot juice, and hot water baths for menstruation-related discomforts. Menstruation is not a disease to be cured. It's natural, and the discomfort is a lifestyle issue.
Thus, the &ME Rhythm products are trying to solve the most common discomforts such as fatigue, bloating, and cramps. They also help manage premenstrual symptoms such as mood swings and anxiety.
The other range is the &ME Grace products, which focus on beauty, starting from the hair, face, and blood detoxification.
SMBS: How did you ensure that your beverages are tasty?
AG: A big challenge in Ayurveda is being successful in food products, and taste is one of the factors. It was clear that my products had to be tasty, or they wouldn't sell. The challenges were that we didn't want to add any extra calories, preservatives, sugar, artificial colors or flavors, but it had to be tasty.
Through an extensive number of trials, we were able to make the product tasty. We have flavours such as watermelon, beet, rose, mango, aloe vera, chilli, green apple, cucumber, pudina, orange, carrot, cardamom, and more.
SMBS: How did you raise investment for the company?
AG: Raising funds wasn't as challenging, but I still had to overcome some odds. By targeting women, I was cutting away approximately 50% percent of the overall market, and even within the targeted 50%, women usually don't buy as much.
Further, there were no observable global parallels to this venture, like how Ola is modeled after Uber, Flipkart after Amazon, etc. Thus, I was telling people my market size was next to zero, I didn't know what the size could be, and that I was creating the market.
These were important factors because investors give a lot of weightage to market size. However, I managed to bring my partners and investors together with the long-term vision of becoming a company for impacting women's wellness and healthcare in Ayurveda and modern science.
Recently, we raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Matrix Partners India, and they didn't have many women in their team but were still willing to back us and believed in our product. Rohit MA, Co-founder and Managing Director of Cloudnine Hospitals also backed us.
SMBS: How are you leveraging digital in your business journey?
AG: I have heard that women have given each other a lot of recommendations about our products. They are more likely to tell each other about products which work for them. Word of mouth is a huge marketing bonus for us, and it's organic as well. But this can happen only after discovery of product.
Through digital, we are able to reach this first step of enabling discovery, and then the word of mouth takes over. Picking up a product from a retail store also acts as discovery. Thus, we not only aim to go live on Amazon and Nykaa, but we also sell in 35 retail stores in Bengaluru.
SMBS: What are the future prospects for your company?
AG: We are always striving to improve and develop our product line, and increase our presence in stores. Within the next six months, we seek product perfection and supply chain efficiency. All the partners that help us source ingredients are extremely crucial on the back-end, and we are still learning on the front-end, since we started supply processes around two weeks ago.
We aim to ready products for PCOS, fat metabolism, and core strength for the market. We are also planning a range of products focusing on fitness. At the same time, we also want to make our products available outside the city.
Within the next two to three years, we want to be present in all the Indian metros and solve as many women's problems as possible. In terms of a much longer perspective, our balance between ingredients can also be applied to other food products such as chocolate, if it solves a problem. There are still over a hundred women's problems we can try and address before we think about venturing into men's products.
SMBS: What is your advice to those venturing out in this sector?
AG: I advise talking to as many people as possible, from customers, partners, investors, etc. This can help them understand the nature of the problems they are trying to solve, how it affects people, and how they can be addressed. This can help break some misconceptions they may hold.
For example, I was surprised to learn that a lot of women I spoke to believed that beauty starts from the hair, not the face. So, we ended up factoring biotin into our plans. Thus, these insights can make a big difference.