Claudio Bergero and Sandra Falkner, founders of Alpengummi, cannot wait to tell us about chewing gum – and there is much to know. It took two years of research and product development to bring their first two flavors of all-natural chewing gum to market (strawberry and forest mint) and in the meantime, they’ve learned a lot. 

For instance, that humans have chewed on resins for pleasure and oral hygiene for millennia Frankincese in Egypt, mastika in Greece, spruce resin here in Austria. People chewed birch gum to stick arrows onto the heads of spears. There is a 9,000-year-old piece of tooth-marked resin, discovered in Sweden, that has preserved the DNA of three different ancient chewers (“Resin is antibacterial,” Claudia assures us).

Commercially sold gum as we know it today was invented in the United States by John B. Curtis in 1848. It was first made of spruce resin and beeswax but, as business grew and new technologies emerged, manufacturers started to derive gum base from petroleum – and have done so ever since.

“Most conventional gum is made of petrochemicals, so basically the same products used to produce asphalt and rubber gloves,” says Claudia. “People don’t know because the packages say ‘gum base.’” On top of the plastic come chemicals to increase softness and elasticity – ingredients they say aren’t always listed.

Alpengummi, by contrast, is made from tree resin and beeswax – organic, regional, all-natural. They gave us a sample: The first taste is sweet, thanks to the tooth-healthy birch sugar (xylitol) and natural flavor, and the initial bite more brittle than mass-made gum. As we chew, the gum grows softer, and the taste slowly resolves into a dark piney note that never fades.

That forest flavor is thanks to the main ingredient, black pine resin – which in Austria grows exclusively along the Thermenlinie, where natural springs beneath the earth create moderate conditions above ground. To source the sticky stuff, Alpengummi relies on the Pecher of Lower Austria. These traditional craftsmen have been sustainably harvesting resin by hand for centuries, using it to line barrels, waterproof boats, and produce rosin — including for the Vienna Philharmonic.

Though the craft of Pecherei (resin harvesting) was recognized as a World Heritage by UNESCO in 2011, it is endangered: many resin products have been replaced through petroleum. As have products once made with beeswax. Alpengummi is thus helping to keep two traditional handicrafts afloat as well as supporting a return to natural food products.

That speaks to the hearts of co-founders Sandra and Claudia, outdoorsy rock-climbers who grew up playing in the Austrian woods. They first met while studying environmental science in Copenhagen, but it was here in Vienna, in a class on innovations in forestry, that the idea for Alpengummi was first born. Their assignment: Create a business plan for a new forest-based product. “Jams made of berries or instruments made of wood,” laughs Claudia, recalling their initial brainstorm. “Not innovative!”

Then they hit on tree resin. They learned of its ancient history as a chewing medium, and at first assumed this must be what commercial gum is made of, said Sandra. But they soon discovered that most gum is made of plastic, and that 95% of the global market is controlled by just one company. And that the tradition of Pecherei was dying. Their product idea “became obvious.”

But the journey from good idea to viable business is long. In this case, it started in the kitchen. “We tried and failed a lot until something came out,” says Claudia. The path is also fraught: Assembling the necessary food safety certifications was long and costly. There was no template to follow; just finding experts with the technology and expertise to analyze resin was a challenge. “Tree resin may have been chewed since pre-history, but it is not a recognized food product,” Sandra said.

But the pair made use of every learning opportunity and grant they could find. Here the support of the Vienna Business Agency (VBA) came into play, offering “consulting and contacts and tips for different grants,” they said. Recently, Alpengummi received a VBA grant that will help them purchase machinery to expand production. The Alpengummi team grew, adding a food scientist and project support. And two years after their first kitchen messes, the big push finally came.

In early 2019 the founders made it onto the TV show “2 Minutes 2 Million,” in which entrepreneurs pitch to a panel of investors. Though the offer they received didn’t work out, the pair knew the show would boost brand recognition – and they worked double-time to hustle their product to market before the episode aired in April.

The strategy paid off – Alpengummi is here and growing. The pair now encourage other potential entrepreneurs – especially other women – not to be afraid. “Only 11% of founders are female,“ says Sandra. “It’s not enough.“ Here, too, the VBA is of help, offering special programs to encourage startups led by women, including seminars, workshops and other programs.

Today, Alpengummi is available at a range of specialty shops and supermarkets across Austria, including Merkur. Those looking for a taste of the wild – or to support a local business built on natural products, traditional handicrafts, and some good old-fashioned girl power – Alpengummi is definitely something to chew on.

Find a shop near you at www.alpengummi.at/kaufen/

Have a business idea of your own? The Vienna Business Agency offers “360° service” for companies in Vienna. It offers funding and advice, workshops and coaching for startups, assistance with the search for production or office space, as well as contacts to potential partners in the technology scene or creative industries. 

This year, VBA celebrates 20 YEARS OF FRAUENSERVICE – consulting for women who are company founders. Visit their website to learn more: viennabusinessagency.at

 

 

 

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