Last March, an interdisciplinary team of Penn undergraduate students beat out 11,000 applicants worldwide to be named one of six regional winners of the Hult Prize, a $1 million challenge inviting university students to create a start-up addressing global issues.
With the goal of eliminating tooth decay in impoverished areas, the team submitted the idea for Sweet Bites, a cavity-fighting xylitol gum.
As finalists, the team, comprised of Eric Kauderer Abrams, Thoba Grenville-Grey, Josh Tycko, Spencer Penn, and Morgan Snyder, spent the summer in Boston taking part in the Hult Prize’s accelerator program. In July, they traveled to India to launch a four-week pilot for Sweet Bites in Bangalore.
Over four weeks, they visited schools and storeowners in the city’s slums, and met with potential public and private partners overseeing school feeding programs in Bangalore. They also partnered with Bangalore’s dental schools.
The Sweet Bites team returned from the pilot in India with lessons learned and a solid business plan.
Says Penn, “I don’t think you can go to India and visit a slum and come back with the same mindset. Josh and I visited a school where we were the only foreign people that had ever visited and so when we came, it was like a snow day. Everyone was really excited; they wanted to learn what we had to say.”
The team quickly recognized that the key to getting their product directly into the hands of children in the slums would be gaining the trust and business of the local corner stores.
“We went to hundreds of little local corner stores and that was kind of shocking,” says Penn. “It is amazing how much economic activity happens in these informal economies. It is surprising how well-organized it is.”
Penn says they learned that residents buy most of their goods from one store.
“We learned that we had to access that vantage point,” Penn says. “So how do we get the storeowner to trust that this product that they had never seen before is actually good for your teeth and is worth more to people and is healthy for them? That is when we came up with the practice of using dental student ambassadors to sell to local corner stores.”
In the exchange, Sweet Bites pays for the students’ dental school tuition.
The team also found that their blue-and-white packaging did not resonate in the market. At the local corner stores, varieties of chewing gum in brightly colored, individual wrapped pieces are stored in plastic jars.
“We thought our packaging was great; it turns out it wasn’t,” Penn says. “Nobody liked the blue color. It did not stand out—they thought it looked medical. Kids did not like it; storeowners did not like it. They wanted to see something more colorful and they wanted it in jars.”
In addition, they discovered that their consumers had a high level of interest in the quality of the ingredients.
“You walk into an informal economy and the vendors and the kids cared about the regulation [and] the quality control of the produce,” Tycko says. “They loved the fact that it was from America [and] that the FDA had approved and regulated this product. They wanted to know all the nutritional facts. A lot of them were vegetarian for religious reasons and they cared a lot about checking that it was not contaminated, that it was produced in a clean facility, and even though it was selling for 1.7 cents, all of that mattered.”
Read more about Sweet Bites.