|Above, Josh Tycko with children in Bangalore, India, considered the nation’s start-up capital.|
Convincing children to chew gum is easy. Distributing gum that prevents tooth decay to children in urban slums is a bit trickier.
Still, given the success they enjoyed during their pilot year in India, the creators of Sweet Bites stand a good chance of making widespread gum distribution a reality.
According to 22-year-olds Josh Tycko of Demarest and Eric Kauderer-Abrams of Englewood, who joined with several friends at the University of Pennsylvania this year to found the group, tooth decay has been a terrible burden on the lives of millions of slum dwellers.
Sweet Bites wants to popularize the use of 100 percent xylitol-sweetened gum to reverse the trend. The students point out that clinical trials in both the United States and India have proved the gum’s efficacy in re-mineralizing enamel and reducing tooth decay.
The Sweet Bites project has been nominated for a Hult Prize, which aims to identify and launch compelling social business ideas. Partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative, it challenges teams to create a business plan to solve grave global problems. Winners receive $1 million in seed capital, as well as mentorship and advice from the international business community. Sweet Bites won a regional competition in Boston this spring. Its creators are looking forward to the next, and final, decision in September.
Mr. Tycko, a math and biology major, said that the idea for Sweet Bites took shape in December, but the college friends had been “brainstorming wacky ideas” for quite some time before that.
“We had a really complicated plan for a diabetes diagnostic device based on the field of biology research,” he said. “We were going down the wrong path for a while. We realized that complicated high-tech strategies do not work in these environments. The largest hurdle is making sure a project is culturally appropriate.”
The chewing gum idea “answered all those problems. It’s very easy to embed a health care solution into something people already love.”
“We had always wanted to do something together,” said Mr. Kauderer-Abrams, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate. After throwing around ideas, one team member came up with the idea of bringing the gum to the developing world.
“We got really excited about it,” Mr. Kauderer-Abrams said, adding that the friends also recently learned about the Hult Prize. “We worked on it all semester and then presented a business plan to a panel of judges in Boston. As a result, we were accepted into a summer incubator,” allowing the group to pilot the project in India during of July. Funding came from Hult, the university, and the Wharton School, he said, as well as from a crowd-funding appeal on indiegogo.com.
Because co-founder Morgan Snyder already had worked with an NGO in Bangalore, the Sweet Bites team decided to incubate the venture in India.
According to Mr. Tycko, Bangalore was a good place to launch the initiative.
“It’s the start-up capital of India,” he said, comparing it to New York, Boston, and the Silicon Valley in the United States. In addition, he said, it is where xylitol is manufactured.
While the people in Bangalore liked the gum, offered in three flavors, “they didn’t like the cinnamon,” Mr. Tycko said, noting that they generally preferred fruity flavors. Sweet Bites now uses privately produced gum, “but we’re trying to vertically integrate to drive costs down,” he said, explaining that Sweet Bites hopes to set up its own gum manufacturing facility.
“We’ve brought locals on board to put together what we need or local production,” he said, adding that while none of the five group founders has direct experience setting up a factory, he is confident that they will succeed.
Mr. Tycko said the best way to reach people in a marginalized community is through the “mom and pop shops, which are everywhere. They get smaller and smaller the deeper you go into tiny neighborhoods, with winding pedestrian streets. Those are the perfect distribution points. The kids go with pocket change to buy gum and candy.”
The vendors are interested, he said, and a few of them have been brought into the project.
“Our experience in India was incredible. Life changing,” Mr. Kauderer-Abrams said. “I didn’t know what to expect. At Penn we were used to doing business in a certain way, by phone or email. There you couldn’t do that. We had to find a way of operating. To find someone, we had to just show up at their office or house.
“This was an idea before we went; now it’s a reality,” he continued. “We went with lots of gum and some promotional materials. Now it’s being sold in more than 50 stores around the city.”
Sweet Bites also arranged for student ambassadors, as they are called, to run educational programs for children in 20 local schools to teach them about oral health. Now 40 schools host the program.
“We’re trying to secure partnerships with NGO’s and large organizations that can help us,” Mr. Kauderer-Abrams said, adding that the team hopes the project will become self-sustaining through the sales of gum in corner stores and in markets.
If Sweet Bites wins the Hult Prize, it will enable them to set up a factory and “to get it going for the first year or so of operation,” Mr. Tycko said. “The name of the game is to make gum as cheaply as possible, taking shipping costs out of the equation.”
Step two, he said, is to build up brand awareness through marketing and media.
“The idea now is for us to win,” he said, but whether they win or lose the prize, the project will continue, and “four locals have already been brought on board, distributing a crazy number of pieces of gum, tens of thousands.” In addition, teammate Thoba Grenville-Grey still is in India, moving the project forward.
“The word has gotten out,” Mr. Kauderer-Abrams said. “This week we received tons of offers from other countries – governments and private individuals” to bring the program to them. “We’re talking with people in Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Turkey, Cambodia, and Laos. We need to set up manufacturing as quickly as possible.”
The Clinton Global Initiative will host the final round of the Hult competition on September 23.
“I think we have a good chance,” Mr. Kauderer-Abrams said. “But we’re doing this with or without winning. It’s exciting to see that we can go out and accomplish high-impact things.”
“It’s rare you get an opportunity to set up a company,” said Mr. Tycko, who now is finishing up his work at the university. (He took a semester off to work on medical research.) He looks forward to a “light semester,” giving him plenty of time to work on Sweet Bites.