The prebiotic soda startup that supports indigenous Mexican communities

September 5, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

For a long time, it seemed like sodas were increasingly unpopular, with focus on all the sugar and other additives. But over the last few years, there has been a boom in the market—but these sodas are different.

Among one of the newest options is Mayawell, which launched in 2020 with a curated range of sodas that aren’t your average colas and lemon-lime fizzy drinks. Flavors include raspberry cucumber with black currant, strawberry ginger with hibiscus, and pineapple mango with turmeric. Each can has less than four grams of sugar and 40 calories per serving, packing five grams of fiber in as well. The sodas are sweetened with organic, hand-harvested Active Agave, which the company says improves digestion while bolstering the immune system and metabolism.

The brand sells direct-to-consumer via its website, in select stores, and Amazon. And the Austin-based company says it supports indigenous Mexican communities and reforestation with every purchase.

Fortune recently spoke with cofounders Vicente Reyes and Oliver Shuttlesworth about the first year in business, the competitive soda startup scene, and plans for the future.

Vicente Reyes and Oliver Shuttlesworth of Mayawell.
Courtesy of Mayawell

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Mayawell?

Reyes: Prior to launching Mayawell, I was a pioneer in the mezcal industry. People called me crazy when I first started talking about how mezcal could compete with tequila. I started my brand El Señorio in 1999 and sold it to a strategic partner in 2010. After that, I turned my focus to the health and wellness benefits of agave. I feel like my life’s mission is to support indigenous communities around Oaxaca and empower them in whatever way that I can.

Shuttlesworth: After a couple of years in advertising, I launched a social impact brand called Esperos in 2012. Inspired by TOMS, we sold backpacks and other accessories and helped fund access to education through partnerships with nonprofit organizations in countries such as Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, and Kenya. I bootstrapped the brand from my apartment, and by 2016 had built the brand to seven-figure sales with distribution across four continents and more than 20 countries. For a variety of reasons, I ultimately parted ways with the company to start a plant-based, nontoxic personal care brand called Curie, which was subsequently sold to a group of former Johnson & Johnson executives, rebranded, and repositioned for wholesale distribution. 

What inspired you to launch Mayawell? What makes it stand out in the growing crop of new sodas on the market?

Reyes: Interestingly, Oliver and I were both inspired by the goddess of the agave, Mayahuel. She is an important symbol of life and vitality in pre-Hispanic cultures, and I was inspired to create a sustainable agave-based product that promoted wellness. I spent a little over six years working with a team of researchers and scientists to develop our unique Active Agave and prove out its efficacy in retaining healthy gut bacteria.

Thankfully, fate brought Oliver and me together to create Mayawell after we were introduced by a mutual friend. We spent a week in New York City discussing our shared passions and our belief that prebiotics would play an important role in gut health for modern customers. At the end of that first week, we had decided to partner together and found the company.

Shuttlesworth: Right now, the world of prebiotics is kind of the Wild West. Several brands on the market are touting prebiotic benefits with no real science behind them and, in some cases, zero prebiotic fiber present in their products. What makes Mayawell unique is that we have six years of scientific research that shows that our Active Agave does what we say it does: retain healthy gut bacteria to improve overall gut health. Beyond that, we have an incredible social impact program in Oaxaca helmed by Vicente through which we support indigenous communities with agave cultivation, crop reforestation, and the repurposing of agave fibers into woven materials. Every purchase helps support those initiatives.

Mayawell flavors include strawberry ginger, pineapple mango, raspberry cucumber, and pear lime.
Courtesy of Mayawell

A key component of Mayawell’s brand is that this soda is a healthier option. What was your research and development process like for coming up with recipes? What kind of ingredients did you test?

Shuttlesworth: From the outset, we were inspired by the idea of drinking shrubs that date back to the 15th century, consumed as much for their digestive benefit as for refreshment. At the same time, we wanted to incorporate certain flavors from Mexico while developing products that appealed to a wide audience. After all, our thesis is that modern sodas can be both healthy and flavorful, so we wanted to develop products that are easy drinking and delicious for all to enjoy.

Reyes: We have the incredible fortune of working with one of the best product developers in the world, and we work collaboratively with her to identify flavor profiles that we believe would be interesting to customers. From there, we narrow in on our favorites and decide as a team which flavors we believe will resonate best in the market.

For a long time—at least over the last decade—it seemed like many consumers were starting to turn away from familiar soda brands, mainly due to health concerns. What do you think has changed in the last couple of years, and do you think this trend will continue?

Shuttlesworth: 2017 was the first year that bottled water outsold soda in the USA in many, many years. That marked an inflection point that seems to stem from a growing understanding of the negative impacts of excessive sugar consumption. Even so, recent studies show that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. That’s about 350 extra calories daily, with sugary beverages playing an outsize role in that. At the same time, 95% of Americans fail to consume the daily recommended value of dietary fiber, which is extremely important for digestive health.

Reyes: At Mayawell, we help address both of these issues by offering a product that has only one teaspoon of sugar while delivering 20% of the daily recommended value of fiber in every can. Our products are both low glycemic index and low in fructose, making them a great option for people with wide ranging dietary requirements. Customers are showing every indication that they’re looking for products that offer both flavor and function, and we’re excited by the opportunity to play a big role in this emergent category moving forward.

Each 12-ounce can of Mayawell prebiotic soda promises five grams of fermentable fiber, with fewer than 40 calories.
Courtesy of Mayawell

Mayawell says it supports indigenous Mexican communities and reforestation with every purchase. Can you explain more about the inspiration for this program as well as breakdown how those purchase proceeds are donated?

Reyes: As a native of Oaxaca, it is important to me that indigenous communities who have such incredible knowledge of our land and, more specifically, of agave are treated fairly and equitably. Together with Oliver, our desire is to build a company that helps to create a positive impact with our agave sourcing partners, with an acute focus in Oaxaca.

Over the past 20 years, I have developed strong relationships with local communities that Mayawell partners with through my nonprofit organization, Hermano Maguey. Together we provide local communities with access to an agave seed bank, native plant species for reforestation, and resources to cultivate agave crops for profitable export. In sourcing agave from our partners and reinvesting 2% of our profits into these programs, we are working to make a meaningful impact in Oaxaca.

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.