Energy-Drink Startup Grows From Dorm Room To Whole Foods

By Drew Jackson
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

In the shadows of giants, Durham-based energy-drink startup Mati Energy will open its first production plant in the industrial area just east of Clayton.

In three years, the company has grown from a dorm room caffeine fix to lining the shelves of Whole Foods and other grocers in the Southeast.

The company has signed a five-year lease on a vacant 30,000-square-foot building on U.S. 70 Business, near the Grifols and Novo Nordisk plants just east of Clayton. Until this summer, Grifols had used the building as a warehouse to store glass vials.

“This is honestly as close to perfect as we could hope to find,” said Mati founder Tatiana Birgisson. “And to be on a street with billion-dollar companies, it gives us something to aspire to.”

Mati’s market clout might fall short compared to two of the world’s largest drug makers, but locally, the rise is meteoric. Birgisson famously started the company in her Duke University dorm room. While struggling with depression, she found herself brewing more and more tea to stay awake. Cups became pots, and once she joined an entrepreneur’s club at college, her teas became a business.

“My first customers were classmates,” Birgisson said. “Then I got a deal to get kegs in local offices.”

Birgisson was once her own delivery driver, taking Mati around town in 900 pound shipments in the back of her hatchback. She still has the hatchback, but now cans of her energy drink are on the shelves of about 150 stores, with a deal to enter 400 Krogers next spring. The company now has five employees and is looking to fill three more positions as it moves into Clayton.

Mati brands itself as a more natural option for energy drinks, using tea and fruit juices as the base, but packing as much caffeine as a cup and a half of coffee. Currently, two contract manufacturers — Carolina Beverage Co. in Mooresville and Durham’s Triangle Brewing — produce Mati’s three flavors, citrus, cherry and tropical. Together, the two companies produce about 25,000 cans a month. But Birgisson said she’ll be able to start at 30,000 cans when she’s up and running in Clayton, and her plan is to ramp up production another 10,000 cans each month.

The company will spend nearly $1 million to bring production in-house, but Birgisson expects the move will cut operating costs by 20 percent. Mati will fit the old Grifols building to its needs, installing a research lab and production equipment. For now, 30,000 square feet is about twice what the company needs, but allows for growth. Ambitiously, Birgisson said the company is planning to start making Mati in Clayton in the next month.

“It was clear in May that we needed to start thinking about bringing production in-house,” Birgisson said. “At that time, equipment was down at Triangle Brewing, and we were only able to make half of what we needed. Our other partner, Carolina Beverage, they also make the two other major energy drinks — we’re talking multimillion-dollar contracts. At any point they could come to us and say they couldn’t make Mati because they were filling these other, larger orders. That liability made it very, very difficult, so we started to look at manufacturing.”

Much of the Mati brand is linked to Durham, where the company has operated since 2012. Durham will remain the company’s headquarters, Birgisson said, while all production will be in Clayton.

Jim Lee and the Walthom Group own the building and penned the deal. Lee said the building had only been vacant a few months and remained fairly clean for an industrial warehouse. Lee is already lobbying to bring all of Mati to Clayton.

“Novo Nordisk and Grifols are great, but no one thinks Clayton is home for those companies,” Lee said. “We want to be able to say this is the home of Mati.”

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