College students start healthy tea company ChugaChaga
By Nick Muscavage
Feb 24, 2015
The attic of Luke Evans and Marc Iskander is filled with loads of strange, earthy brown chunks, called chaga, scattered about on the shelves and floors. Chaga is a fungus that these third-year University at Albany students are harvesting and turning into teas with positive health benefits.
Luke Evans, the CEO and CFO of ChugaChaga, explained that he and his friend Paul Gomez, the COO of the company, came up with the idea in December of 2013.
“We knew all about chaga and we were like, ‘Why don’t we just start a company with it already, you know what I mean, there’s nothing here.’ We saw a problem and we tried to develop a solution that we saw fit for the product,” said Evans. As of February 2015, Gomez is no longer with the company.
Chaga is a medicinal mushroom that grows on Birch trees that is very difficult to find without the proper skills. The brewing process to turn it into tea takes around three hours, according to Evans. “The normal person doesn’t have that much time in the day to devote towards one product, you know, people don’t even make dinners anymore,” he said.
Their goal as an organization is to take care with the brewing process, package the tea into an easily recyclable glass bottle, and make it into a ready-to-drink product ranging in flavors such as mint-maple, peach, and cherry-vanilla made from entirely organic ingredients and selling for $3 each.
It is no hyperbole to say chaga is a super food. On the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale, which measures antioxidants in biological samples, chaga ousts its competitors. Containing around 1,104 ORAC units per gram, chaga crushes acai berries with only have 164 units per gram, pomegranates with have 105 units per gram, and blueberries with only around 24 units per gram.
Evans explains that chaga converts Betulin, which forms naturally on Birch trees, into Betulinic acid, which is then digested by the human body.
“Betulinic acid is special because it is raising some significant awareness in the cancer community. Chaga is being used right now at Memorial Sloan Kettering in their cancer research because it has been shown to create apoptosis in cancer cells,” he said.
Chaga also contains melanin, which gives skin its pigment and is also a source of energy. It has long-chain polysaccharides such as beta-glucans, which fight high cholesterol and are also able to boost immune systems and bring the body to homeostasis, according to Evans.
Iskandar, the president and secretary of the company, said they are the ones running the company, harvesting the fungus, and creating the product. “We’ve been going up to the Adirondacks a lot, different places in Monticello and we go up in teams of three,” he said. “Between equipment, we probably each have 40 to 50 pounds. A typical day is around a 100 pound haul.”
The equipment and the freshly harvested brownish orange chunks of chaga are carried back down these mountains that can be as high 3,500 feet. Some of the mountains they hike are Noonmark Mountain, Eagle Bay, and Schroon Lake, Iskandar said.
They carry 100 feet of rope, chisels, hammers, boots and food for every trip. He also explained that they use the chisel and hammers to chop off the chaga from the trees. They make sure to leave portions of the mushroom on the tree so that it will grow back properly
“We wake up at four in the morning, we get on the mountain at sunrise and we’re there until sunset literally just hiking,” Evans said.
“Or until we fill up our car,” Iskandar says with a laugh.
Pure chaga, organically harvested, can sell for up to $50 per pound. ChugaChaga has about 750 pounds of it in stock. ChugaChaga’s logo, which can be seen on stickers in various arbitrary spots around the UAlbany campus, is already trademarked, as well as their slogans, “Live Life Passionately,” and “Tree Tea.” ChugaChaga is also in the process of working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to come up with chaga regulations.
“They are exclusively using our research and expertise as the marker for how the regulations should be written,” Iskander explained.
“Right now we are going through Cornell University’s food research lab developing a scheduled process on chaga. They are going over our recipes, making sure everything is compliant to be shelf-ready,” said Evans.
“We’re also pursuing to be certified organic so we’re actually going through USDA to have that certification. Part of our image is transparency and we want everyone to know exactly what’s in our product, exactly what we’re doing and to follow all the rules and regulations that coincide,” Iskandar said.
Evans and Iskandar both wish to spread awareness of the benefits of chaga as well as see a positive change in the food industry. “We’re hoping to inspire change across our food industry because not much change has happened in, realistically, 100 years and it’s covered up for the most part and food justice isn’t given its equal share in our attention, but people should know where the food that they have is coming from, and who is supplying it and what they are doing with it,” Iskandar explained.
“All these people are waking up to what they’re being fed and it’s all lies,” Evans said earnestly. “It coincides with a lot of different activist movements that are popping up in the world. Vermont is making this ban about non-GMO labeling on their products, there is a huge following for the non-Monsanto movement. We’re trying to create a product and environment where people know exactly what they are consuming.”
ChugaChaga was a sponsor of People’s Climate March in Sept. 2014. “It was an amazing experience, it was unreal. There were 400,000 people in New York City, in Columbus Circle at seven in the morning. We were volunteering. We were actually the bodyguards for people like Al Gore, Ban Ki-moon, Jane Goodman,” explained Evans.
Along with People’s Climate March, ChugaChaga is also involved with Startup Tech Valley, which is a newly organized program where first time entrepreneurs can meet with experienced entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and other startups. On Feb. 4, 2015, ChugaChaga attended the meeting at Brown’s Brewery in Troy, NY. ChugaChaga’s products are expected to be available in late spring of 2015.
On Feb. 18 2015, Evans and Iskander met with Norm Snyder the former COO of SoBe, who was a critical member of their buyout by Pepsi. They were able to have an hour-long meeting with him facilitated through A.C.E., a student run organization, which took place in the Business Building Executive Suite. Of the meeting, Evans said, “Norm had a powerful yet understanding presence with real advice on how we could better ourselves and our company.”
He gave them helpful tips on how to focus and harness their energy on “Tree Tea” products.
ChugaChaga is now applying to the seed program through the small business program at UAlbany ran by Bill Brigham, which helps new startup companies find funding at early stages. The company also has a fundraising website at www.gofundme.com/ChugaChaga.