Fermenting Success: MEM Alumnus Sid Sharma Launches Kombucha Business

April 21, 2016
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Contact: Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

By Kati Moore (MEM ’16)
Nicholas School Student Blogger and Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – Within 18 months of graduating from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Sid Sharma (MEM ’14) was running his own business.

Working with two childhood friends in Baltimore, he launched Mobtown Fermentation, which brews Wild Kombucha, a carbonated drink made from fermented green tea.

At the Nicholas School, Sharma pursued the Energy and Environment concentration while working toward the Certificate in Environmental Entrepreneurship and Innovation headed by Jesko von Windheim.

After graduating, he moved to back to his hometown of Baltimore to work at an energy consulting firm. Meanwhile, two of his friends, Adam Bufano and Sergio Malarin, were brewing kombucha in their parents’ kitchen and distributing it to family and friends.

Sharma joined the team, brewing kombucha and labeling bottles on nights and weekends in addition to his full-time consulting job. As demand for their product grew, the three friends began to see the viability of turning it into a full-fledged business. Last August, Sharma left his job at the firm and began working full time for Mobtown Fermentation.

Wild Kombucha image 1.jpg
Bottled Wild Kombucha (Photo: Mobtown Fermentation)

 

Mobtown Fermentation’s Wild Kombucha is made from green tea, to which is added to sugar and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY. This mixture is left to ferment for ten days before organic juices are added for flavoring. The drink is then bottled and left to ferment for two more days, creating natural carbonation.

“That gives it the bubbliness that people who drink soft drinks crave,” says Sharma, who views Wild Kombucha as a healthier alternative to soft drinks.

The company brews three flavors: mango-peach, ginger-grapefruit, and elderberry. Its products are stocked in 70 stores in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, including organic grocery stores and three Whole Foods locations.

Sharma and his team distribute about 1500 bottles per week.

In addition to brewing, bottling, and labeling the kombucha by hand, Sharma and his team spend their days delivering their product to local stores, pitching new locations, and doing samplings or “pourings” of Wild Kombucha in stores that sell it.

Most of their time, however, is spent developing the business.

“We laugh about what percent of our success has to do with our kombucha at this point,” Sharma says. “It’s a lot smaller of a percentage than you would think.”

More important, he says, has been his ability to apply the business concepts that he learned from his classes and master’s project work at the Nicholas School.

For his master’s project, Sharma worked with von Windheim to evaluate the market potential for leak detection technology in water pipelines. This gave him experience not only doing quantitative analysis but also understanding the social side of adopting new technology.

“That was definitely an amazing experience. It taught me how to really in an in depth way evaluate a market and understand what potential there is and if people would take up a certain technology, because at the end of the day for someone to take on a technology or in our case consume a product, you have to understand how they think when they’re in the market,” he says.

This experience, along with business practices learned in his entrepreneurship classes, have given Sharma and his business an edge that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

“That program and the knowledge I gained from it has really helped us get to this level much quicker than we would have,” he says.

Mobtown Fermentation recently hired one new employee and two interns, and has plans to add two new beverages to their production line while expanding distribution along the East Coast. They’re also looking into mechanizing the labeling and bottling process, which would be a big step forward in expanding their production.

As they continue to grow, Sharma – who earned bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and environmental studies from Case Western Reserve University – credits von Windheim’s guidance and teaching.

“A lot of what he emphasized was the fact that no matter what business you go into, you’re never going to be fully prepared,” Sharma says. “You just have to understand how to learn what you need to learn to be successful.”

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