Testing Waters With Success

Written By: Christine Stutz

The passion Kun Yang, PharmD ’15, has for helping people led him first to the pharmacy profession, and then quite naturally to entrepreneurship in the health and wellness industry. As CEO and founder of Pricklee Cactus Water, Yang and his colleagues are carving out a sliver of the fast-growing hydration beverage market.

Founded in 2021, Pricklee is a beverage derived from the prickly pear cactus and is a powerhouse of antioxidants, electrolytes, and vitamin C that is naturally low in sugar. Some dub the popular product as the next coconut water.

According to Grand View Research, the global packaged cactus water market size is expected to reach $73.7 million by 2027.

“We’re really hitting our stride,” says Yang, who has launches planned in many new markets after first debuting the health and wellness drink in the American Southwest — Nevada, Arizona, Southern California, and soon Texas. Bright, colorful packaging and a fun, high-energy brand appeal to Millennials and Generation Z.

As a father of two and someone who describes himself as passionate about health and wellness, Yang is excited about offering consumers a delicious drink that is natural. “I grew up drinking soda, Gatorade, and Tang, and I want to see the next generation growing up with way better options,” says Yang.

His business partner, Mo Hassoun, grew up in Lebanon, where his family would enjoy cactus water in the hot summer heat.

Yang and Hassoun, who is also a pharmacist, met in Boston as postdoctoral students. The idea for Pricklee sprouted when Hassoun shared his family recipe. “One sip, and we knew we had something special,” says Yang.

Born in China and raised in Canada, Yang moved to the United States after attending McGill University. When he was ready to apply to pharmacy school, he says, the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy (UMSOP) appealed strongly to him.

“UMSOP breathed life into my entrepreneurial spirit through research, networking, and leadership opportunities that were afforded to me via its interdisciplinary network, professional schools, and communities,” Yang says. “Looking back, my time there showed me that I wasn’t solely defined by the letters after my name, and that I could make a greater impact in my career when thinking outside the box and collaborating with people and communities from different walks of life.

“This ecosystem is truly rare and diverse in thought, and I encourage all students to take full advantage of the resources and connections that UMSOP offers beyond the four walls of Pharmacy Hall,” he says.

When he and Hassoun decided to go into business together, they found the transition relatively easy.

“Our pharmacy training laid the foundation of entrepreneurship by providing us with an incredible network and skill set,” says Yang. They were able to present Pricklee on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2021 and received multiple competing offers from the Sharks. “We went in with the goal of getting great PR and great advice, and we got both,” Yang says.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, but if there’s one lesson that we can extrapolate from our experience, it’s that you should always challenge yourself to set the biggest goals possible — because regardless of the outcome, the growth and self-awareness you will gain is the greatest reward in life you can achieve. They say the journey is the destination, and boy, were they right!”

Pricklee continues to build off its strong momentum in the Southwest and plans on launching into Whole Foods this year. “We take extreme pride in being the thought leaders and disruptors of this exciting category, and we’re honored and excited to continue our mission of helping people live healthier and happier lives, naturally.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Capsule Magazine.

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