Young Tupper Lake entrepreneur wins prize for innovation

Garrett Kopp and Thomas Burke III of Clarkson University hold a $10,000 prize check for Birch Boys Chaga after winning second place at the 2016 Wake Forest University Retail and Health Innovation Challenge. (Photo provided — Allen Aycock, Wake Forest University School of Business)

TUPPER LAKE — Young entrepreneur and Tupper Lake native Garrett Kopp continues to make strides with his chaga business, Birch Boys, winning second place and $10,000 at the Wake Forest University Retail and Health Innovation Challenge on Nov. 11 and 12.

Chaga is a kind of black fungus that grows on trees and, when dried and ground, is used as tea or a tea supplement. It is an age-old folk medicine with a range of supposed health benefits that include antioxidants and benefits to the immune system.

Kopp, an 18-year-old sophomore at Clarkson University, traveled down to North Carolina to compete against 12 other teams in the fourth annual challenge, which was hosted by Wake Forest’s School of Business and its Center for Retail Innovation and sponsored by CVS Health, according to WFU Senior Associate Director of Communication Stephanie Skordas.

Kopp pitched his product to several judges, competing against student teams representing universities in the U.S. and beyond, he said. Judges included representatives from CVS Health, Johnson & Johnson, Bellomy Research, Inmar, the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, Sales Factory + Woodbine, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, WestRock, Wake Forest University School of Business, Wake Forest Innovations and ITT.

“It was really crazy, and I didn’t really understand what I was getting into,” Kopp said. “I realized you had to be a student to go to the competition, but I didn’t realize most people competing were Ph.D. students. Some of them were literally in their 30s or 40s. It wasn’t just your typical undergraduate freshman or sophomores.”

Kopp said he went into the competition feeling calm, as he had made a 30-minute presentation to angel investors at Paul Smith’s College on Nov. 7 in a meeting that went well. He said he knew that whether he won or lost at Wake Forest, he would walk away fine.

The reality of the challenge began to set in when he met the other teams and learned about their high-tech ideas. Kopp became a little nervous as his teammate, Thomas Burke, was brought along to meet the two-person quota and their team was the only one pitching a traditional, holistic product, he said.

“I sort of had an underdog feeling because I was 18, because my friend I brought with me was just a friend who was unprepared and knew nothing about chaga and I had to prep him and get him up to speed, and just because of the product’s nature in general,” Kopp said. “I wasn’t creating a high-tech genetic coding software; I was just selling a wild-harvested medicinal mushroom.”

Kopp said the divide between pharmaceutical companies and holistic communities also made him feel strange, but despite his doubts, he knew the competition would be a great experience as he was going to network with high-level professionals, introduce people to chaga and be able to hand out tea samples.

On day one of the challenge, teams pitched their ideas for two minutes without props or visuals. From those pitches, the judges chose four teams to move on. On the second day, each of the four finalists made a 30-minute pitch to the judges, followed by a 10-minute question-and-answer session.

Kopp said he was surprised to move on to the second round but was glad to know he would not walk away empty-handed, as there were four prizes to be given out: $25,000 for first place, $10,000 for second, $5,000 for third and $1,500 for fourth.

“When we made it into the final four, I was shocked,” Kopp said. “People were coming up to me, congratulating me and thanking me, and I couldn’t even form a sentence. I was just so caught up in my own head. All I knew was that there were these brilliant people from these brilliant universities, and I was hearing their ideas when were talking, and they were so good.”

An awards dinner followed the finalist presentations. James Vanderham from Grand State Valley University in Michigan and his Orindi Ventures project, a cold endurance mask, won first place.

“Initially, I was upset because they start with the fourth place, then the third place, so I knew it was either second or first,” Kopp said. “Honestly, I think the person who won first place, I think no matter how we could have possibly presented our product or our idea, he inevitably would’ve won first place because he was just further along in the process than we were and he absolutely deserved it. After sleeping and looking back on it, and letting it sink in, the bottom line was I was very happy walking away with second place.”

Birch Boys Chaga is currently sold in 19 stores across New York, Vermont and Connecticut, and Kopp has no intentions of slowing down. He has been fundraising since the beginning of November with a goal of $29,000 and has exceeded his expectations. With the $10,000 prize, he plans to increase efficiency through better equipment, building a website and hiring an employee.

“I’m buying new grinding equipment,” he said. “It’s going to allow me to really grind and process chaga 10 times the speed I am now. I’m also going to redesign my product and my packaging, create a chaga coffee blend, order custom-printed bags so I’m not individually sticking a label on every single bag because it’s really time-consuming, fund some trade shows and dedicate a lot of money to marketing.

“Hopefully I can end up getting the product not only in these small, privately owned health food stores but bigger health food chains like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Wegmans. That’s my long-term goal.”

The ground, dried chaga mushroom is used like a loose-leaf tea and put in a steeper or tea bag for about 10 minutes, Kopp said. It tastes like any black tea and can be mixed with any loose-leaf teas and coffee.

Kopp says chaga has more antioxidants than any naturally occurring substance on earth, determined through oxygen radical absorbency capacity testing, and also contains a compound called betulin which has been shown to trigger apoptosis in cancer cells.