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14 January, 2019 - 12:49 By Tony Quested

Smooth operator acquired by Coca-Cola can inspire new Cambridge entrepreneurs

A Cambridge University alumnus who secured a $500 million-plus acquisition by Coca-Cola is hoping to inject some fizz into a new vintage of startups.

Adam Balon, a co-founder in smoothies business innocent Drinks is a guest panellist at the Judge Business School’s Enterprise Tuesday event on February 5. Under the headline ‘Creating a Star Team – Serendipity or Design?’ Balon is able to weave an incredible storyline.

St John’s College alumni Balon, Richard Reed and Jon Wright met in the early 1990s in Cambridge and decided to start a business in an après ski discussion on a snowboarding holiday. It initially proved to be a slippery slope.

The venture began by selling smoothies at a music festival in London. Fifteen years on, the company was acquired by Coca-Cola for more than $500m. Following the sale to Coca-Cola, the founders of innocent set up JamJar Investments and the company has invested in a number of progressive ventures including Deliveroo.

Balon recalls too well that no financier was prepared to take a chance on the venture in the company’s formative years.

At a London music festival, the founders put up a sign asking people if they thought they should give up their day jobs to focus on making smoothies. A bin saying 'Yes' and another 'No’ were placed at the front of the stall. They asked people to vote with their empties and by the end of the weekend the 'Yes' bin was full so they quit their jobs and plotted the future.

A business plan was written and re-written 11 times but the team was turned down for investment by every bank, VC and business angel in London. They sent a desperate email to everyone they knew appealing: “Does anyone know anyone rich?”

US angel investor Maurice Pinto proved the white knight, investing £250k. He had an undergraduate degree in economics from Yale University and an MBA with Distinction from Harvard Business School and saw potential in the venture. He was the sole investor in the foundling company.

Innocent launched in April 1999 with founder Jon Wright selling the first three cases of drinks to local London sandwich bar Out To Lunch. A year later, the company’s smoothies were being trialled in 10 Waitrose stores. The trial was a success and the team extended their UK footprint.

The company branched out from its smoothie offering to offer coconut water, juice and ‘kids' stuff’, in a bid to make natural, healthy drinks that help people live well.

The Enterprise Tuesday event will be chaired by Michael Hayman, Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Fellow, and co-founder of Seven Hills and Startup Britain, who also works with The Duke of York on the development and delivery of [email protected] and The Duke of York’s iDEA, on whose board he sits.

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