We all know that leafy greens are good for us, but for a lot of people there's a big gap between knowledge and consumption as these dense nutritional powerhouses are not to everyone's taste. But there is an easier way of loading up with beneficial nutrients according to Darren Ducoté, co-founder of The Little Pharma. "Just one of our wheatgrass shots is equivalent to eating a kilo of green vegetables," he says. "Each shot is high in antioxidants, has all eight essential amino acids and contains 92 of the 108 minerals our bodies need as well as vitamins A, B, C, E and K. All this means they are great for helping with detoxification, building red blood cells and massively boosting the immune system."
Before setting up The Little Pharma, Ducoté and his co-founder and life partner Amanda Swan ran their own horticulture supply business specialising in hydroponics. The impetus for their new venture came from being unable to find a consistent supply of good quality wheat and barley grass juice for personal use. "We started growing our own and soon discovered there was a demand for a convenience product that meant people didn't have to do the juicing themselves," Ducoté says.
“Little Pharma is all about using fresh ingredients. There is nothing powdered or freeze-dried here,” he adds. “Our wheatgrass seed is organically certified and our barley grass seed is chemically untreated. We are the only company bringing fresh barley grass juice to the market using high-pressure pasteurisation. This is a technique of applying pressure to liquids to improve their safety and quality that doesn’t affect the live enzymes or nutritional content. Our target market is the health-aware consumer of all ages who looks for nurturing products to support their wellbeing. Our shots are easy to take and we have the edge in the market when it comes to freshness, provenance and traceability.”
The couple launched The Little Pharma in 2017 and were doing everything themselves from growing to distribution. Like a lot of small food startups, however, they soon found themselves under pressure trying to meet demand. Despite having a product consumers wanted, the business was struggling to grow without sufficient investment and Ducoté says they went through a tough second year during which they had to restructure and put up prices. It also became clear they needed a better and more scalable way of producing their product.
Their solution has been to find a business partner and effectively outsource production. The operation has now been moved to a purpose-built unit in Tipperary, leaving Ducoté and Swan free to focus on business development and preparing a pipeline of new products including shots for children with orange and apple juice. The packaging has been refreshed and they are trying to broaden the convenience appeal by selling single shots alongside the multipacks. Single shots sell at about €2.65 and multipacks at about €6.50. Little Pharma products are available in 35 (and counting) SuperValu stores and in health shops and independent retailers.
Investment in the business has been about €250,000 which includes expenditure on machinery such as the pressing equipment. In additional to personal funding, the company has been supported by South Dublin LEO and by Microfinance Ireland which provides loans to start-ups and small businesses.
While the product is not designed to travel per se, the company’s self-designed, self-built growing system is transferable. There has already been buying interest from abroad and Ducoté says that designing and building units for other people has the potential to become a second revenue stream. “It’s been a steep learning curve, but at this stage we know everything there is to know about hydroponics, the products, and the design and building of the systems needed to grow them,” he says.