The A-Day: developing the next generation of supplements

Image from The A-Day: developing the next generation of supplements News Article

13th March 2024

Everyone loves hearing The A-Day’s origin story. Helping out at the infamous ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, a group of Oxford University postgraduate students saw first-hand the widespread issues of malnutrition and dental disease among refugees.

A varied diet was impossible to come by at the camp, and efforts by volunteers to distribute multivitamin pills or encourage toothbrush use had returned patchy results. Despite the severe physical symptoms, psychological resistance to existing solutions presented a significant barrier to healthcare. But chewing gum was always popular with the camp’s inhabitants as a reward for completing surveys. What if, thought biochemistry DPhil student Harriet Lester, a gum could be fortified with vitamins? Could that help tackle the nutrition crisis at Calais?

Back in Oxford, a group of postgraduate women began working on the idea. Veronica Martini, an immunologist, realised that using xylitol as a gum base – a natural compound with a sweet taste and a battery of proven dental benefits – could allow the dental problem to be tackled simultaneously: two birds, one stone.

“It sounds like a simple problem to solve,” says Andrea Stykket, co-CEO of The A-Day, the social venture that has developed around this mission. “But in practice it has proved really difficult to address these issues in places like Calais. That’s why our product has the potential to make a huge impact for groups at high risk of malnutrition – refugees, but also other populations who face similar challenges, such as people experiencing homelessness or addiction.”

The startup has since completed six successful pilot distributions with charities in different countries. “The feedback from beneficiaries, NGO staff, dentists and medics has all been overwhelmingly positive,” says Andrea, whose ambition is one day to see The A-Day’s gum as a standard part of emergency food rations.

A gum with potential to disrupt the global supplement industry

Origin stories, however, don’t turn successful prototypes into manufacturing at scale. Nor does the promise of charitable impact necessarily prick up the ears of investors. But The A-Day is much more than that.

“We didn’t set out to create a product that could be sold to people in a competitive market,” says Angharad Jones Buxton, co-CEO of The A-Day. “We tried to fix a really important problem that no one else had their eye on, and our pilot studies with vulnerable end users show that it works. But as the business has developed, we’ve come to see its enormous commercial potential.”

The supplements industry is a big one – and it’s an industry the team behind The A-Day hopes to disrupt. Unlike most multivitamins, which are swallowed as pills and absorbed through the gut, The A-Day’s gum is engineered to be absorbed into the bloodstream via mucosal tissue in the mouth – bypassing well-known challenges with nutrient absorption in the gut.

“I was doing a first aid course at my college,” says Angharad, “and found it interesting that the trainer mentioned chewing an aspirin would get it into the bloodstream more quickly if someone is having a heart attack. It’s the same principle with our vitamin gum. And there are lots of other issues with gut absorption that our product avoids.”

The gum is now available through The A-Day’s online shop, while the team continues to advance collaborations with research partners for clinical testing and further product development. Their ambition is to disrupt the global supplement market.

Calling angel investors

The A-Day team has been extraordinarily successful in attracting small amounts of funding, winning almost every pitching competition they have entered in Oxford and raising investment through the Oxford Seed Fund. They also came through Oxford University Innovation’s Startup Incubator, which supports entrepreneurs with advice, guidance and access to facilities during the early stages of ventures. Now, The A-Day team is preparing to launch a serious investment round to take the business to the next level.

Angharad says: “We’re not a shiny, venture capital-friendly software startup. It’s a massive testament to the Oxford ecosystem and the opportunities available that such an atypical, impact-focused startup has been able to thrive. I don’t think there are many places where that would have been possible. Now we’re looking to connect with angel investors who understand both aspects of what we do – disrupting the supplements industry and helping vulnerable people.”

“We don’t fit neatly into a particular box,” adds Andrea. “But if we can leverage the huge market potential for this type of vitamin supplement, we can also achieve our goal of real social impact.”

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