A small, Santa Monica-based fruit company called Nature’s Wild Berry that grows, processes and markets ledidi berries has secured financing
A small, Santa Monica-based fruit company called Nature’s Wild Berry that grows, processes and markets ledidi berries has secured financing from two of the multimillionaire investors that appear on the reality television series Shark Tank.
Co-founders Juliano Bonanni and Hank Watt have pioneered a process to freeze-dry the berries, preserving their potent properties. Also known as synsepalum dulcificum or “miracle berries,” they contain a glycoprotein molecule that coats taste receptors on the tongue and when you chew them for 30 seconds, they convert sour, tart or fermented tastes to sweet flavors for the next 20 to 40 minutes.
“Our tagline is ‘sweetness without a sweetener’ because every sweetener out there is an additive by definition,” Watt says. “You have to make sure that it coats your tongue first and we can think of it like an anti-additive because of that. And we don’t really call it a sweetener because it’s not an additive.”
In 2013, Watt became friends with Bonanni – then the owner of a vegan restaurant in Santa Monica – who was experimenting with ledidi berries and needed a test subject of sorts. “They sounded way too crazy for me. They sounded like something straight out of Jack and the Beanstalk, but I had to try it,” Watts says.
“He made me the healthiest smoothie that you could imagine…and it was so disgusting,” he laughs. “It had dandelions, unsweetened cranberry and lemon and all this kind of crazy, wacky stuff. And I just had one of these berries and it tasted deliciously sweet to me, I couldn’t believe it. I thought of it like jumping into a pool, without getting wet.”
Watt says the berry was the catalyst for a significant health change, transforming his palate and ultimately his diet, resulting in substantial weight loss and preventing the onset of diabetes. Consequently, he invested tens of thousands of dollars to launch the business, working alongside Bonanni.
They quickly realized that no one else was venturing forth into this particular market due to the high cost of refrigeration. After 10 months or so of research and development, they perfected the freeze-dry process that takes place within hours of harvest.
At first, the berries were sold in supplement shops and specialty grocers, but during the pandemic they shifted focus to the digital marketplace, including sites like Amazon. At the same time, the product was attracting interest from celebrities like Jennifer Garner. Following some initial success, they were persuaded to apply to appear on Shark Tank.
“A couple of weeks later, we got a response back saying that out of the 40,000 companies that had applied, we’d been selected to start the process that would eventually lead to us being on the show,’ Watt says.
The episode aired on May 5, 2023 and the panel of investors sampled the berry alongside apple cider vinegar, lemon wedges and unsweetened cranberry juice and described the effects as “crazy,” “absolutely incredible” and “a parlor trick.” After considering multiple bids, Watt and Bonnani accepted an offer from Mark Cuban and Lori Grenier for $80,000 in exchange for 20 percent equity and a $3 royalty per unit sold until the investment is repaid.
“Thinking about this validation from Mark and Lori, it makes me emotional because it’s been six years, and it’s been a very long journey to get here, and we’ve traveled through so many obstacles,” Watt said on the show. “But now we’re here, we got the deal and it’s all worth it.”
But you don’t have to be trying to lose weight to benefit from the properties of the berries or even have a sweet tooth. “I love using them with savory foods too because it brings out even more flavor. So if you’re a foodie and you like experimenting, you should definitely try them,” Watt says, adding that they pair very well with almost any strong cheese.