Probotics startup Zoh is using nutrition science and tech to revolutionise the fermented foods industry
The coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on immunity-building foods. Founded by nutrition research scientist Salonii Hamirwasia, probiotics startup Zoh is riding the wave with its flavoured kombucha and DIY culture range.
When 250 bottles of Salonii Hamirwasia’s kombucha sold out at the Bandra Farmer’s Market, and she came away with orders for another 300, she realised she had stumbled upon something substantial.
Never intending to change career paths, Salonii, a research scientist, was at that point in her life fielding offers to lead a Swiss conglomerate’s probiotics R&D division.
“There was no plan to start the company, but life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” says Salonii, Founder ofProbiotics, a Mumbai-based fermented drinks and DIY kits startup.
With a triple master’s in nutrition and sports science from India, Switzerland, and the UK, Salonii had been researching the effectiveness of probiotics on athletic performance at the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland.
Studying the microbiome and its effects on health and diseases gave her valuable insights into the role of gut health on overall wellbeing, and she was convinced that fermented foods were the all-natural solution in a world that abuses antibiotics to treat even the mildest of infections.
“We now have scientific proof that an unbalanced gut can be the root cause of most ailments, from gastrointestinal disorders to compromised immunity and from cancer to depression. Fermented foods are one of the best ways to include more diversity in gut health,” Salonii tellsin an interview.
Zoh Probiotics was officially incorporated in 2018, but it took nearly a year to set up manufacturing facilities. The bootstrapped startup launched its products in February 2019.
Its range of products includes different flavours of kombucha, with peach being the most popular, and DIY culture starter kits for fermented products like kefir, Greek yoghurt, Bulgarian yoghurt, and kombucha. The brewed kombucha teas retail for Rs 200 a bottle, while the DIY kits start at Rs 600.
Salonii says their science-backed formulations set Zoh apart from the others in the space.
A nutrition scientist who has extensive experience in gut microbiome, Salonii uses advanced food technology, in conjunction with scientific culture methods, to improve the nutritional content of her concoctions.
“We put our products under a very advanced microscope. We’re a team of professionals in nutrition, microbiology, and biochemistry. We make foolproof cultures so that anyone can make ferments at home,” she says.
While most kombucha founders are yoga teachers, chefs, or self-proclaimed nutritionists, Salonii’s products are created in state-of-the-art laboratories. The startup’s panel includes microbiologists and nutrition science researchers of global standing.
“As scientists, we did an analysis of various kombucha products available in the country. Not a single one had the sugar content they claimed. One brand claimed 5 gm of sugar per 100 ml, but had 17 gm per 100 ml. Another very popular one had 3 gm per 100 ml, but it wasn’t even kombucha since it’s pH never went below 3.9 after four months of fermenting. Microbial analysis of these kombucha brands showed they were almost dead products with no microbial activity; just flavoured carbonated water,” Salonii says.
She adds that Zoh’s merit shows when you put its products under the microscope, and that the startup has gone as far as DNA-testing their kombucha culture. It is also very conscientious about compliance with food safety standards and good manufacturing practices.
“We pack our bottles at the peak of microbial diversity and density. Air quality is critical for most wild fermented products like kombucha and kefir, especially with the pollution levels of Indian cities. We meticulously maintain air quality to get a product that is far superior than others.”
Zoh primarily sells directly to consumers, especially its DIY culture kits that are very sensitive to temperature and humidity. For beverages, its first preference is D2C. However, it is looking to expand into retail and to HoReCas as soon as COVID-19-related challenges subside.
Surprisingly, several brands today buy their symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBYs), used to start ferments, from Zoh, and they are quite loyal to the brand and its formulation, Salonii says.
COVID-19 and the future
Like most companies, COVID-19 hit Zoh’s supply chain and human resources, forcing it to shut operations for a month. After the lockdown lifted though, Zoh saw an “unexpected growth” in beverage sales, as well as its DIY range, helped by an increase in awareness about the role of fermented products in building immunity.
In terms of sales, the startup has exceeded its pre-COVID-19 levels, despite grappling with the sudden spike in demand.
The global kombucha market is expected to reach a market size of $7.05 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 19.7 percent over the forecast period, a report published by Grand View Research said.
In Asia Pacific, China and India are leading the kombucha revolution, while on a global scale, the US tops the charts with brands such as GT's Living Food, PepsiCo, Reed's Inc, and Redbull, among others.
Zoh expects revenue to grow 12x, year on year, it said, with quarter-on-quarter growth of 25 percent. The self-funded startup reinvests its profit in bettering its lab equipment and manufacturing capabilities, it said, and has so far served nearly 27,000 customers.
Salonii says she’s looking to launch six new kombucha flavours over the next two months, and add Natto, Japanese fermented soybeans, to its DIY product range.
“Being a product company, our foremost focus is to continually keep improving the quality of our products. We invest a lot in researching ways to improve our products like making our enzymes stronger, and creating more potent microbes so that they survive the stomach and reach the gut to give maximum benefits. We want to continue to invest in clinical research to check for the potency of various isolated strains of bacteria,” she says.
Recently, using in-house-built equipment, the startup was able to improve the concentration of bioactive molecules in its kombuchas.
Ultimately, though, Zoh’s founder says the startup wants to be recognised as “the gold standard for providing quality, effective, and efficient fermented products”.
Edited by Teja Lele