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Soy's Making Waves Among Smart Business Owners

This little bean is making a big difference in dozens of industries.
October 1, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/167644

The jolt you get from Marina Kushner's Soyfee has nothing to do with caffeine. In fact, it's just what it sounds like: a coffee substitute made from soybeans. So what exactly is that feeling you get when you take a gulp of Kushner's concoction? "My product tastes almost identical to coffee, if not better," says Kushner, 39, founder of Soy Coffee LLC in Royersford, Pennsylvania.

Naturally, only the die-hard coffee drinker can be the judge of that. But the point is, Kushner has made it her business to provide an organic coffee substitute made from soybeans to people who need or want to cut caffeine out of their diet, or just add some extra soy. Kushner, who started her company in 2001 and is also the founder of the Caffeine Awareness Alliance, became a soy advocate when she found she could not drink coffee anymore because the caffeine and acids upset her stomach. "I suffered difficulties with concentration," she says, "and I was looking for a brain support formula." Five years and plenty of soybeans later, Kushner has what she-and her customers-consider just the right formula, and that has added up to $1.2 million in projected sales for 2006.

The soy phenomenon is extending its reach into just about every consumer sector imaginable, from house-hold cleaners and laundry soap to clothing and beauty products. No longer just for eating in a tofu stir-fry, soy-particularly organically grown-is stepping into the spotlight for those looking for healthier or more environmentally friendly alternatives. In the clothing category alone, experts predict that products made from materials like soy, hemp and bamboo will follow in the footsteps of organic food and beauty products, which have quietly become a $15 billion industry.

As co-founders of Ideal Bite, Jen Boul-den and Heather Stephenson, both 33, have witnessed firsthand the growth of such trends. Their Bozeman, Montana, company is essentially an online repository that's chock full of informa-tion and tips for the "light green consumer"-those who "drive their SUVs to Whole Foods," says Boulden, who boasts roughly 62,000 subscribers on www.idealbite.com. "Soy has been touted as the miracle drug. It's being used in everything from alternative fuel to all-natural shampoo."

And if you're Joshua Onysko, you've got your attention focused on making soaps using soy oil instead of palm kernel oil, a vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, which is frequently used in soap manufacturing. There is increasing concern among environmental groups about the global impact of clearing rainforests to make way for oil palm plantations, destroying the habitat of threatened species, including the orangutan. "When I first started making soaps, I realized that palm oil is one of the most destructive oils on earth" in terms of habitat annihilation, says Onysko, 29, founder of organic skin and body care company Pangea Organics in Boulder, Colorado.

As an alternative, he turned to U.S.-produced, organic soybean oil. "It's an extremely good emollient," says Onysko, who started his company in 2001 and expects sales of $2.6 million for 2006. "It's also a good carrier oil," he adds, meaning it's a good base for the herbs, spices and teas he uses to make his soaps, which are all cold-processed, not boiled, to keep the natural ingredients in their purest form. And with the help of an annual $100,000 grant from the Western U.S. Agricultural Trade Association, Onysko has extended Pangea's reach to 14 different countries. The products are sold in spas and at natural foods stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

For Chris Anderson, 39, and his wife, Marnie, 38, soy takes the place of paraffin wax in their line of candles and makes for a much cleaner-burning candle. Many experts agree that paraffin candles produce carcinogens when burned-some of the same toxins produced by burning diesel fuel. "Let me put it this way," explains Chris, who started Zionsville Candle Co. in 2005 and expects his projected sales figures to jump from $400,000 this year to between $1 million and $1.5 million in 2007. "Last year was probably the first year in 10 that I didn't get bronchitis."

The Andersons add more than just soy to their candles: Each one comes with its own "wick certificate," a personal story behind the candle. For example, instead of being just plain lilac, it's Mom's Lilac Bush, with the story of Chris planting lilac bushes with his mom.

As more companies turn to soybeans to make their products, it's personal touches like these that will become increasingly important. Boulden, whose website is devoted to tracking such trends, sees huge potential for the little legume. "We have our finger on the pulse of subscribers who are looking for the perfect soy answer," says Boulden. "The companies that [provide] that are going to be the most successful."

Karen E. Spaederis a freelance writer in Southern California specializing in small business and education.