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Florida 'Shark Tank' entrepreneur is guiding business to new heights

Rick Neale
Florida Today
Walton Sun

After learning depressing data about plastic bottle waste in his freshman biology class, Ben Stern realized that "the farthest room away from the recycling bin was the bathroom."

Then the future entrepreneur spotted his mother using a Tide laundry detergent pod. "And the idea hit me like Eureka!" he described.

By age 16, Stern invented the plastic bottle-less Nohbo Ball, an eco-friendly, single-use shampoo ball. The Viera High junior successfully pitched his innovative product to billionaire investor Mark Cuban on ABC's "Shark Tank" in February 2016.

Fast forward four years. After various tribulations, 70-hour workweeks and "blood, sweat and tears," Stern has reformulated his signature product and reorganized his Melbourne company, eyeing future growth.

"We have purchasing commitments in Europe for 76 million units over the course of the next four years. We're closing out our Series A round of financing for $3.35 million from a series of syndicate investors, ranging from chemical companies to material science funds," said Stern, who is now 20.

"I've learned everything, broadly speaking, about venture capital. About raising money. About scaling a product. Helping others scale theirs, through my experience with Nobho Labs and building beauty and personal care brands that are everywhere from Sephoras to Ultas to hotel distributers," Stern said.

"I've learned that the hardest thing about scaling a product is controlling a good, steady supply chain. And the ability to produce one product doesn't mean you can produce a million," he said.

"Challenges are, obviously, at every level. And you have to be prepared five times over to mess up," he said.

In October, Cuban visited Nohbo's production facility off NASA Boulevard in Melbourne to film footage for a "Shark Tank" update highlighting the company's success. Nohbo will host a viewing party for that episode — and the NFC championship game — at 9 p.m. Jan. 19 at Groundswell Startups.

The address is 2412 Irwin St. in Melbourne. Admission is free, but attendees are encouraged to RSVP from the event's Facebook page.

Cuban, who owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, offered $100,000 for a 25% stake in Stern's fledgling company on "Shark Tank" in 2016. After the episode aired, billing his product as "the world's first eco-friendly shampoo ball," Stern launched an Indiegogo campaign using a manufacturer based in Spokane, Washington.

But Stern said he took too many long flights to and from the Space Coast — and the powder-based product was breaking up and needed new chemistry. So he "pivoted" and teamed with Melbourne chemist James Ramirez to develop single-use liquid drops, rather than powder.

In August 2018, Nohbo relaunched with Nohbo Drops, liquid pods that contain 5 milliliters of shampoo, conditioner, body wash or shaving cream. Per instructions, users mix each drop with water for 3 or 4 seconds while rubbing their hands together, and the biodegradable casing melts away — "it replaces the need for bottles outright," Stern said.

Nohbo partnered its manufacturing business in September with Absolutely Natural, a Melbourne cosmetics company, to boost production up to 15 million drops per month. That's 180 million drops per year.

In tandem, Nohbo opened an office-laboratory inside Groundswell Startups, a high-tech business incubator off U.S. 1 in Melbourne. Research and development takes place here — glass beakers, Bunsen burners and scientific doodads line shelves and countertops. Stern has filed for seven patents.

Nohbo employs three full-time workers and two contract workers. Stern said the $3.35 million financing deal will boost employment to 11, increase scale and capacity, and fund existing purchasing commitments.

Nohbo's European distributor is Bunzel, which inked the four-year, 76 million-unit purchase commitment. Stern flies to The Netherlands once per quarter to monitor progress.

In October, Stern spoke during the GITEX tech conference at the Dubai World Trade Center.

As a teenager, Stern worked at Jersey Mike's Subs and a Wegmans grocery store (pushing carts and running cash registers) near Washington, D.C., before moving to the Space Coast the summer before his junior year at Viera High.

In May, Groundswell Startups hosted a $100,000 Rise of the Rest pitch contest funded by AOL co-founder Steve Case. Similar to "Shark Tank" in many respects, that event featured friendly commentary from the judges — unlike the trademark biting sarcasm from "Mr. Wonderful" Kevin O’Leary on the television series.

Stern emails Cuban at least once per week.

"He's very vocal and engaged. On the show, he put in $100,000. Since then, he's really put in over $225,000," Stern said.

"When you meet him, you can almost tell why he’s a billionaire. He’s very, very, very on top of it. He's very sharp," he said.

"I don't think he buys much into excuses. He doesn't like people selling him — so you can very easily find yourself in a bad experience with Mark if you try to only highlight the good things that are happening in your company," he said.

"Whether you’re a coffee shop or whether you’re Microsoft, he wants the whole picture. And if you don't give it to him, that's when you start to have problems with him," he said.

'Shark Tank' viewing party

Groundswell Startups will host a viewing party for the "Shark Tank" update — and the NFC championship game — at 9 p.m. Jan. 19. The address is 2412 Irwin St. in Melbourne. Admission is free, but attendees are encouraged to RSVP from the event's Facebook page.

Neale is the South Brevard watchdog reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.

Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @RickNeale1

This story originally published to floridatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.