WHEN Troy Douglas and Drew Bilbe began their beverage company six years ago, with naturally sugar free products at its core, they probably didn't expect one of Australia's biggest fast food companies to come knocking at their door.

The guys who founded Nexba have partnered with Domino's (ASX: SMP), Australia's first publicly listed pizza company with global franchising and branding, to produce a sugar free range of soft drinks called Next Gen.

Next Gen will be free from preservatives, artificial colours and flavours as Domino's looks to provide healthier alternatives to its customers.

The new product is now in all Domino's stores in cola and lemon flavours in a 375ml can and each drink has less than 11 calories.

Douglas and Bilbe already have some big corporates as their customers including Coles, Aldi and 7-Eleven and they've been rewarded with the 2017 Product of the Year in the beverage category by research firm Nielsen.

Business News Australia spoke to Douglas and Bilbe about Nexba's plans for the future, and why the partnership with Domino's is about more than just adding to the bottom line.

Given the partnership with Domino's is your first foray into fast food does that make the partnership even more important in your eyes? How does it compare to signing a stocking agreement with Aldi or Coles for example?

Troy: I think every new customer is highly important to us, it's not that Domino's is more important to us because everybody is important to our business, but having created and crafted by Nexba and the brand called Next Gen is really exciting for our business.

Drew: The customers like Domino's and they're such a leader in the food service industry, and it really creates consumers that are going to be buying from Domino's which is good because it's a similar ethos to what we are, that challenger food service brand, and we really see ourselves as the challenger beverage brand as well.

Is this an exclusive contract? Or are you looking to start getting Nexba out in more fast food joints?

Troy: Next Gen is exclusively for Domino's. They have been great for us as a young business because they're supporting the fact that we're first to market with this innovation. What they really believe in is the authenticity of what our product provides.

What differentiates Next Gen from the other beverages you've launched into the market so far?

Drew: Given that its crafted by Nexba it means the Next Gen brand uses the Nexba technology and flavours. What we've done over the past six years is create the closes thing you can get to a sugary tasting drink you can imagine. So, they're naturally sugar free and we use a combination of natural flavours to really match that overall profile of sugar; the initial hit of sugar, the mouth and feel and the body also has the same sweet aftertaste as well without any of those negative things that the other sweeteners have.

From your perspective what does it mean for the beverage industry going forward now that company's like Domino's, who probably don't have the best reputation for healthy food, are trying to offer consumers new healthier options in store?

Troy: What's exciting is it's accelerating the process. The innovation is there; there's no reason why people should still be consuming high amounts of sugar. I think what's exciting for us as a business, and we've been going for seven years, is there's suddenly a big momentum where the impact of sugar comes to light and is much more talked about in the media, so companies like Domino's are taking that impact seriously and now they're actually doing something about it, so that's really positive.

Drew: I think what's really important to say is that this is a validation that demand for naturally sugar free soft drinks is absolutely there. Domino's or not, a company wouldn't move to put this on their range and menu if they didn't believe that their consumers were really wanting these kinds of alternatives. As Troy pointed out before, the fact that our innovation is a naturally sugar free soft drink that tastes exactly the same as a full sugar soft drink it's crazy not to have these kinds of drinks on the menu and not push forward with satisfying the consumer demand.

What have been some of the biggest challenges over the six years you've been operating?

Drew: For us the biggest challenge is we set out on this path of creating a beverage company. There are these big multinationals that we're up against and what we set about doing is creating something that is really genuinely healthy. So, the whole journey is creating this and formulating and getting these flavours to create a drink that is uncompromising on taste. That's definitely been one of our challenges and it's something that we are really proud of.

Troy: We self-funded our business for a number of years and how we got to where we are was by building quality relationships with big customers which typically can be seen as a hard thing to do in our industry. Our biggest challenge right now is that we've now come up with a solution that is naturally sugar free but many people probably never would have heard of our brand.

What's next for Nexba?

Drew: For us it's really about getting that brand awareness out there in Australia, really growing strongly over the next 12 months and getting availability into all the retail chains including Woolworths as well. Getting larger formats in, so we're looking at launching a one litre soft drink range into the majors in the next few months as well and that's exciting for us because it opens us up to another type of customer as well. We're currently selling a four-pack glass range and that's a nice boutique style and it's great for portion control but a lot of people want a large format so they can put it in the fridge or for kids so we're going to be entering in that space as well.

Troy: Our vision is to be the naturally sugar free brand delivering innovation so we want to continue to innovate with our big customers nationally. Soft drink is one of the fastest declining categories but it's historically the largest so what we're trying to do is have a healthy alternative that's better for you. You can enjoy a drink now and not feel guilty about it because there's no sugar, nothing artificial.

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