Meet Troy Douglas and Drew Bilbe, the boys behind Australia-based beverage brand Nexba. Serving up their all-natural, sugar-free drinks, they’re spearheading the anti-sugar movement in their homeland and beyond.
In a crowded market dominated by big players and sweet products, two Aussie boys have begun a dauntless war against sugar. Determined to reinvent the beverage industry with their natural, sugar-free innovations, they are on a mission to tackle diabetes and obesity by offering viable alternatives to the ubiquitous sweet drinks found on shelves and in fridges around the world. Struck by inspiration whilst sipping on an iced tea on a Mexican beach, Nexba founders Drew Bilbe and Troy Douglas have now rolled out a range of products containing their patented, all-natural sugar substitute. Read on to find out how, for them, the future looks – naturally – sweet.
Having started out as a small brand selling natural iced tea out of the back of a van in 2010, Nexba has demonstrated unstoppable momentum in the eight years since its inception. Its range of soft drinks, which includes flavoured sparkling waters, sugar-free fizzy drinks and tonic water, is sold in most major retail outlets and supermarkets across Australia including Coles, 7 Eleven, and Woolworths. Their most recent product to hit shelves is their sixth offering, a range of Kombucha recipes, each of which contains a unique strain of probiotics.
“Initially, our dream was just to create great tasting, better-for-you beverages that we love,” Troy explains of their beginnings. It was during Drew’s exchange program in Mexico that came as part of his civil engineering degree that the idea was sparked. Sipping on a cold glass of iced tea on the beach Rio Nexpa, he began to wonder why Australia didn’t have a natural, healthy equivalent. “The beverage space was much more welled up overseas. Iced tea alone took up about 12-14% of the entire beverage market in Mexico. Whereas in Australia, only Lipton and Nestea offered sugary options, and those took up only 1-2 % of the beverage market. So, there was a space for us to create our own company,” he says. Teaming up with his like-minded mate and now brother-in-law, then 20-year-old Troy, that idea quickly became a business. Bootstrapping their venture with AUD 500,000 of their own money, they launched Nexba to bring their all-natural iced-tea and a healthier alternative to their local, sugar-loaded market.
Growing up surrounded by sugary beverages, the pair has seen the challenge up front. “The beverage industry is renowned for sugar and artificial nasties,” says Troy. Sugar-related health problems in Australia are akin to those in many other countries. According to The Guardian and Sugarbyhalf.com, people consume 22kg of added sugar each year, 42% of which comes from beverages and discretionary food. It’s a diet that has been a major factor for a nation blighted by obesity, dental cavities and diabetes – the latter has been blamed for contributing to 51% of deaths in Australia.
As sugar has gained prominence as public enemy no.1, companies have responded with ‘reduced’ or ‘no sugar’ options, replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners that can have an equally deleterious impact on public health. Studies have suggested they can be linked to strokes and an increased risk of dementia. “The so-called sugar-free and diet options have lost consumers’ trust,” says Troy. “Innovation is what we need to be able to enjoy what we have grown up with, but in a much healthier way.”
It was against this backdrop that Nexba developed their own, patented natural sweetener blend. It took the duo a total of six years to crack a formula that emulated the taste profile and mouthfeel of sugar without using a single grain of either the bad stuff or its artificial alternatives. Drew recounts, “There were a lot of times when we reached a dead end and had to find another route. We did about a thousand iterations of the blend itself until we got to the point where we were happy with the result.”
This innovation is the secret to how Nexba now strikes a balance between flavour and health value in their beverages. It also gives the newcomers a competitive edge in the quest for consumer attention and an industry dominated by heavyweights. Last year, the business saw 156 % net revenue growth. And now, with their latest probiotic beverages, they have grown beyond their initial range of flavoured iced teas for their domestic market to a full-fledged company that scales beyond Australia. This month, they enter the UK with their healthy alternatives, where they will be stocked in over 500 Sainsbury’s supermarkets across the country. “We are looking to champion our innovations to the world, targeting key markets to build a scalable platform overseas,” says Troy.
Planning to roll out more drinks over the next two months, the boys are very clear that they won’t settle for just creating healthy beverages. They want to act as agents of change in a progressively healthier world, and its this very purpose they see as their strength. “You need to truly believe in what you are doing to build an authentic brand and story that others can trust in and follow,” says Troy. “This is what builds momentum and brands without a multimillion-dollar marketing budget.”