Gabriela Touma's startup, Joos, born of taking control of her own health
The thing Gabriela Touma misses the most is eating. “I love it,” she says, wistfully and nostalgically. Sugar, gluten, lactose, coffee – you name it, she was in to it. Sadly, it wasn’t all that in to her.
About seven years ago, when Touma was just 24, that became painfully evident. Originally from Ecuador, she was in Edmonton transitioning from university to the workforce, where she specialized in industrial automation and, later, supply chain management.
She loved her work but found it unusually exhausting. She’d come home and collapse for a two-hour nap before being able to get on with what remained of the day.
Touma was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that causes pain and fatigue, compounded with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the thyroid, also resulting in fatigue and a long list of other symptoms.
Finding relief with food
Doctors were ready with a lifelong regimen of medications. Touma wasn’t. A nutritionist suggested a change of diet along with fresh juices made with ingredients that some research has shown to combat symptoms of both conditions. They would also be required for the rest of her life – but at least it was food.
Touma woke at 5:30 every morning to concoct mixes including parsley, cucumber, melon, spinach, ginger, tumeric and more. The process took 45 minutes, involved laborious cleanup and prep, but it worked.
The Hashimoto’s went into remission and the fibromyalgia symptoms lessened. But she was losing a lot of time dealing with health issues.
“Who has time for this?” says Touma, who started to wonder if she could find a way to simplify the routine without sacrificing the nutrition. What’s more, what if there were others who would benefit from her approach to nutrition?
Or, from a more convenient version of it. Her idea for a product that would do both was Touma’s first step toward a market that, according to the latest Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada data, earned about $11 billion in annual revenue.
Today, demand for functional foods, those that contribute to health beyond basic nutrition, and natural health products designed to restore or maintain wellness, is growing exponentially.
With help from NAIT’s acceleration services and research chefs from the Culinary Arts program, Touma has built her fledgling company, Joos, which is already creating products that some see as unrivalled in Canada. She no longer spends 45 minutes on juicing; today it’s more like 16 hours. She has no time for a nap; she doesn’t need one anyway.
Starting from scratch
Touma has no previous experience as a food-industry entrepreneur. Instead, she has tenacity fuelled by necessity, resourcefulness, curiosity and a small measure of obsession.
“I don’t wait for people to tell me things, I just do them,” says Touma. “I’ve been taught to find my own solutions since I was a kid.”
As a solution, Joos was not simple. Daily juicing was actually the easy part. The trick was to maximize convenience but not compromise substance, which required equal parts creativity and technical know-how.
Touma wanted to create what Ryan Theriault, NAIT acceleration services consultant, calls “healthy Kool-Aid” – a powder to which she could just add water. “This is designed to deliver nutrition,” he says. “It is a high-end product.”
During her time in industrial automation, Touma encountered several ways to achieve that. In fact, some of the companies she had worked for let her use machinery in their plants or made preparations for her.
She taught herself to test to see if essential nutrients such as vitamins A, B, K, zinc, magnesium and more made it through various drying and concentrating processes intact.
The best results, she discovered, came of freeze drying her fruit and vegetables. By quickly dropping the temperature to -50 C or less, and then creating vacuum conditions under which to draw out every molecule of water, she could preserve about 90 per cent of the nutrients she wanted.
That was the proof of concept Touma needed. She bought $9,000 worth of equipment, rented a small space on Edmonton’s south side, and began reducing anywhere from one-and-a-half to three kilos of fruits and veg at a time into what would one day be 90-gram jars of fragrant, colourful powders. Each batch took about 48 hours to make. But it wasn’t a business yet.
“I was doing experiments,” she says, until an enterprising friend recommended she get in touch with NAIT for guidance and connections to the broader startup community.
Testing the waters
By September 2017, Joos was taking shape, and she hit the farmers markets for feedback on three blends: Energize, Detox and Superfood.
The trouble was, “I’m not a chef,” says Touma. “When I tested those, my flavours were not OK.”
“I’m not a chef. When I tested those, my flavours were not OK.”
Soon after, Theriault and acceleration services colleague Adriana Ferrer Rondon connected Touma with research chef Maynard Kolskog (Cooking ’82) and research assistant Mariana Lamas Bezerra (Culinary Arts ’18). Joos impressed them.
“I thought it was fantastic,” says Kolskog, who has helped develop herbal teas, gluten-free pastas, vegan ice cream and more for industry clients. “It’s such an easy way to get different types of nutrients without having to do all the juicing yourself.”
Just as impressive to him was Touma’s receptivity to their recommendations to adjust proportions of fruits and vegetables to make Joos taste better.
“I think that’s an ingredient of success,” says Kolskog, “being able to take feedback instead of shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is a fantastic product.’ Having that humility. You don’t know it all.”
Real food, real money
One thing Kolskog and Lamas were not able to fix is Touma’s price point. At the time of writing, a jar of Joos ran $55.
Health foods, however, are becoming an easier sell. In 2013, the Business Development Bank of Canada reported that almost a third of Canadians were willing to pay “a premium” for such products. An aging population, the report continues, may push that portion higher.
Still, “There’s a sticker shock element” to the price of Joos, Theriault acknowledges. In light of that, he and Ferrer have been helping Touma position her product as unique in a niche market.
“A lot of our work has been in helping her develop that message and then finding the people who are most receptive to it.”
“For me that’s a challenge,” says Touma. “How do I [explain] that this little jar is so potent?”
Not an all-juice miracle detox
NAIT dietician Nicholas Creelman believes it’s possible if done correctly. He agrees that Joos is costly, but doesn’t call it overpriced.
“She's using real food,” he points out. “It's nice to see that it's just fruits and vegetables.”
It could even be too potent, he adds. Creelman doesn’t recommend all-juice diets touted as ways to “detox” – that’s what our kidneys and liver are for, he points out. They’re no good for weight loss, either, he adds.
“What's the benefit of literally just drinking sugar for the whole day?” In the absence of fruit and vegetable fibre, explains Creelman, naturally occurring sugar is no better than added sugar.
Touma doesn’t recommend that approach either. Joos was designed to supplement her own modified diet, not replace it. Nevertheless, Creelman feels some consumers run the risk of overdoing it with a product like Touma’s.
That said, it wouldn’t be many. According to Statistics Canada, just 30 per cent of Canadians eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day (adults should have seven to 10). For a relatively small number of overachievers, supplemental nutrients would end up as little more than “expensive pee,” says Creelman.
In comparison, given how the majority of us eat, “I think [Joos] could have a place,” he adds.
Joos is still small, but it’s growing. Starting from virtually zero in summer 2017, Touma’s company generates roughly $2,500 a month through sales at farmers’ markets and a burgeoning online subscription service that includes mostly local clients but also a few in the United States. Just as importantly, her business is diversifying.
Sweet collaborations with local chocolatier
In addition to working with Maynard and Lamas to refine her recipes, Touma is leaning on the NAIT chefs’ expertise to help her develop a nutrition bar made with Joos. Also, she recently took on the role of supplier, partnering with Edmonton-based Violet Chocolate Company, owned and operated by Rebecca Grant (Culinary Arts ’07, Management ’13).
An award-winning chocolatier, Grant has a reputation for unusual flavour combinations (chili mango, honey rosemary and so on). Earlier this fall, she launched a white chocolate bar made possible by Touma’s talent for freeze-drying.
“I had worked on an avocado toast chocolate bar throughout the summer and I'd kind of given up on it because I was having trouble getting the avocado to the right consistency and texture,” says Grant. Touma, who’d reached out earlier in the year about the possibility of contributing, assured her she could help.
Touma’s avocado powder was “the perfect consistency,” says Grant. And it tasted fresh and authentic.
Future collaborations are likely, she adds. Grant has found that high-quality, freeze-dried products are hard to come by in Canada. Now she can get them locally. “It's wonderful having Gaby providing these services in the city.”
Theriault and Ferrer look forward to seeing Joos become integral to local culinary and food manufacturing operations, as well. They also want to see the flagship product spread far and wide. “We’d like to see [Joos] being exported,” says Theriault. “We’d like to see it across the country.”
“Not every day is easy.”
Touma’s ready to put in the work to make that happen, and has ramped up production to about 50 jars a month.
“Not every day is easy,” says Touma. She’s not talking about her health. These days, that’s generally good (“sometimes I do eat bad. I’m not perfect. But then my pain comes back”). Mostly, she means the ups and downs of startup life.
But, unlike when she searched for a remedy for her own symptoms, she’s not alone. Theriault and Ferrer consider themselves part of her team. They know that Touma’s the one with everything riding on how it all turns out and, having seen her in action, they’re not worried.
“I feel like she is a fighter,” says Ferrer. “When you see someone that energetic, you can’t fail them.”
Support to succeed
Companies of all sizes come to NAIT to develop their products and businesses. As part of NAIT’s Industry Solutions, Acceleration Services works one-on-one with local clients, connecting them to everything from specialized equipment, to expertise advice, to business planning resources, and more. The goal is to help get new products and services to market, improve existing ones, and, overall, help Alberta businesses become more competitive.
– Bekki Hall