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Product developed by Mount Vernon grad appears on Shark Tank

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By Rachel Christian

The billionaires on ABC’s Shark Tank were presented with more than a few investment opportunities during their most recent episode Friday night, but only one was created by a Mount Vernon High School graduate.

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A company called Rumi Spice appeared on the product pitch reality show to secure funding for their unique gummy candy, called Saffron Gems. Three US Army veterans founded the startup two years ago, but the gummies were designed and created by Laura Willis, a 2007 Wildcat alumnus and Mount Vernon native.

Willis serves as Director of New Product Development and is Rumi’s first employee. She met the founders - Kimberly Jung, Keith Alaniz and Evansville native Emily Miller– at a food expo two years ago when she was working for Ferrara, a major candy company based out of Chicago. The company was looking for a new, interesting way to use saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.

“I thought, why not put it into candy?” Willis said. “They fell in love with it right away.”

In September, Jung, Miller and Alaniz informed Willis that they were traveling to Los Angeles for an episode of Shark Tank, but no longer had the test batch of Saffron Gems to present to them.

“I knew the sharks weren’t going to let them get very far without a specific, kind of novel product on hand,” said the 28-year-old food chemist. “The group said they were leaving in three days, so I whipped up a new batch over the weekend and got it to them in time.”

Billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban ultimately invested $250,000 in Rumi Spice during Friday’s episode in exchange for a 15 percent stake in the startup.

Each of the five sharks was given a two-gram bottle of saffron along with Willis’ gummies as Miller, Jung and Alaniz presented their pitch to thepanel.

"I think your mission is good,” Cuban said during the episode. “I think it's going to be impactful beyond your product.”

Willis left her job at Ferrara in December to work for Rumi full time. She said the company’s social impact mission is what appealed to her the most.

Miller and Jung designed Rumi’s business model as part of a project when they were students at Harvard’s MBA program.

While Miller, Jung and Alaniz were overseas in the military, they saw the devastating effect of opium production in Afghanistan. The country’s economy is largely agricultural, and many poor farmers resorted to growing illegal poppy – the source ingredient in opium and heroin – to survive.

Hundreds of poppy fields were burned by U.S. military forces during the 2000s, and the three soldiers wanted to find a safe, peaceful and profitable way for Afghan farmers to make a living and support their families.

Saffron turned out to be the solution.

“There is a large demand worldwide for the spice,” Willis said. “By helping these farmers, we’re also helping create a supply of high quality, reliable saffron.”

In addition to its Saffron Gems, Rumi sells saffron for both wholesale and retail consumers on its website.

Although the spice is often said to be worth its weight in gold, Rumi has kept the price down to just $5.99 for a bag of its gummies by using only a small amount in their candy.

“Since we have such a pure source of saffron, we don’t need to use as much,” Willis said. “We wanted to make it accessible to nearly everyone.”

Since the Shark Tank episode premiered, the Rumi Spice office in Chicago has been a beehive of activity. Working at a bustling startup is a major change of pace for the Mount Vernon native, who plays a critical role in designing, creating, promoting and marketing products that incorporate the floral tasting spice.

“It is definitely one of those jobs where you wear many hats,” she said. “But it is incredibly exciting.”

Willis said she has already brainstormed other product ideas, including a saffron cocktail syrup and saffron honey butter. She also plans to create additional flavors for the saffron gummies to make them more marketable to retailers like Whole Foods and Fresh Market.

For now, those who are interested in sampling some Saffron Gems can check out the company’s website at rumispice.com.