Surrounded by friends chugging down strong Swedish coffee or bouncing off the walls after drinking energy drinks, Lukas Von Grebmer says he quickly started to get concerned about the impact caffeine was having on fellow foreign students at Stockholm School of Economics. So, he started investigating alternatives along with his group of friends.
“We saw people around us trying to cope with the pressure of studying by drinking so much caffeine and also really sugary drinks, but that didn't really do it for us; we found ourselves getting jittery and nervous and saw that other people were too,” he tells The Local.
“We all enjoy to meditate and we found out that in Japan people use matcha green tea as part of their meditation routines to help them concentrate. It has around the same caffeine content as coffee but also contains a mineral essence with a calming effect.”
After tracking down Japanese Zen monks who swore by the substance to find out more, and speaking to researchers at Harvard University in the US, Von Grebmer — along with two friends from Germany and another from Bulgaria — went on to create and launch Akuo, a drink inspired by matcha tea and designed specifically for hardworking students and professionals with a passion for healthy living.
Its key ingredients are green tea, guarana (a plant used as a source of caffeine by indigenous people in the Amazon reason) and ginseng (a herb long praised for its cleansing and anti-stressing properties).
“We were initially quite sceptical about the science but we soon became confident that we could make something that would really help people,” the entrepreneur explains.
“We think of Akuo as a focus drink. It's designed for people to have before they need to sit down and write an article or an essay or a business plan, without crashing afterwards,” he explains.
“It provides a concentration enhancing effect without the negative effects associated with coffee like getting restless.”
Akuo is currently sold in Stockholm and Malmö. Photo: Akuo
The drink is currently available in carefully selected cafes and health food outlets “that match with Akuo's ethos” in Stockholm and Malmö, with the Akuo team also increasingly selling in bulk to other start-ups and corporate firms looking for new ways to perk up their workforces.
Von Grebmer says he and his team initially considered launching their business in Berlin or London, since none of the co-founders spoke strong Swedish at the time of setting up their venture. But the Italian remains convinced that they made the right decision when opting to stick around in Stockholm, thanks to the city's strong start-up scene and a huge focus on clean living.
“Stockholm is kind of unique in that people are really health conscious and not so price sensitive, so they are willing to pay for premium products,” he says, noting that one bottle of coffee costs around 35 kronor ($4.17), about the same price as a quality latte in the Swedish capital.
“Swedes are also very open and progressive and like to be the first to try something new. They get hyped up about stuff.”
But the former economics student says he has found some other aspects of Swedish culture tricky when trying to grow the business.
“In general I find Swedes to be very polite but at the same time they don't like conflict,” he explains.
“We have found people are often quick to tell us they like our product but it doesn't always move on from there. They will maybe come up with an excuse that one colleague isn't on board with the idea but then we never meet that mystery colleague,” he laughs, elaborating on a recent blog post by one of his co-workers.
“Another example is that when I was a student I was often a few minutes late for group meetings. Nobody ever said anything…but I noticed people getting increasingly annoyed. They sort of just expected me to work out what was wrong. I discovered that in Sweden you need to look for more subtle signals.”
Now almost fluent in Swedish, Von Grebmer says his newfound skills have helped him to forge stronger, more open relationships in his adopted country and he strongly recommends that other expats dedicate time to studying the language.
“It already felt at home in Stockholm, but knowing Swedish helps me to feel even more at home…and my interactions are a bit different because I can tell when I am talking to Swedes they are acting a bit differently than when talking in English, and they feel more comfortable.”
Like many immigrants from southern Europe he admits he still struggles with the county's dark winters but says he can find few other faults with his life in the Swedish capital.
“The start up scene here has a great eco system and the city is big enough that there is a lot going on. There is a pulse and and energy but yet it's not as stressful as say London or New York. I enjoy the balance of busy city life and the calm Swedish nature — both in terms of Swedes' personalities and – literally – the nature surrounding me here.”