Alina Morse has always had a mind for entrepreneurship. From a very young age, she kept a journal of business ideas she might one day want to execute. Peanut butter and jelly that squirted from the same tube was one of them, Morse notes, explaining that if a parent didn’t have time to make a sandwich, kids could just take the tube in a lunch box and make their own.
It was a different food product that eventually held her interest, and it took under a decade for this first venture to get off the ground. At 11 years old, Morse is the brains behind Zollipops, the Stevia-sweetened lollipops that reduce acidity in the mouth and help reduce the risk of cavities. The suckers may be geared toward parents seeking a healthier alternative to sugary sweets, but the colorful Zollipops are designed with just about any sweet tooth in mind. Made with plant-derived sugar alternatives erythritol and xylitol, they are gluten-free, vegan and kosher.
When she started the company four years ago, Morse relied on her family—both of her parents have professional experience in sales and marketing—to get her idea off the ground, including $7,500 in savings from her grandparents. The idea quickly paid off, with Zollipop sales topping $70,000 in 2014—the same year the millionth Zollipop was sold—and hitting $300,000 in 2015.
Even the First Lady likes the healthy lollipop alternative. In 2015 and 2016, Zollipops were the only candy company partner for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, picked as part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” health-focused initiative.
Morse, now a fifth grader, lives in Michigan with her family. She spoke to Smithsonian.com about talking her parents into backing her business idea and improving the shelf stability of sugar-free candy.
What inspired you to create Zollipops?
During a trip to the bank with my Dad, a teller offered me a sugary lollipop. I love candy, but my Dad had told me that too much sugar was not good for me or my teeth. So I asked, why can’t we make a sucker that is good for you?
What happened next? How long did it take to actually start making a sugar-free lollipop?
Well, I asked my Dad—he says over 100 times—when are we going to make a healthy sucker? And every time I went to the bank or saw free candy in a dish, it was a reminder to ask. It took four to five months to get him to help.
Our next step was research, and [that took three to four] months. We learned and discovered so many things during this time. We spoke to dentists, hygienists, and food technologists. We went into stores and researched online. We did market research of what products were on the market. We realized that childhood tooth decay was the single most chronic condition facing kids in America. We learned how cavities form. We learned about acidity, alkalinity and pH. We discovered ingredients. We researched how to make hard candies. We experimented.
How did you make early versions of the lollipops? Who of your friends and family helped you test them and get them ready to sell to a wider market?
After discovering the teeth cleaning ingredients erythritol and xylitol, we tried making [lollipops containing these ingredients] at home in molds. That didn’t work; we made a huge mess! Then we researched and found a manufacturing plant that had the right equipment and allergen limitations in their facility. One of my friends had several severe food allergies, and I wanted her to be able to enjoy them too.
My dad helped me with research, and my friends all tasted and shared their opinions, good and bad, about flavors and preferences.
How far along in the process were you when you approached the manufacturing facility?
We’d researched many plants to find the facility that had the right equipment and was willing to work with us. We had a formula, a name, and identity when we approached a manufacturing facility.
This was an ambitious plan! What sort of prior experience did you have making things or inventing a new product or item? Did you ever have other business projects, like a lemonade stand?
Since I was about four years old, I have been keeping a journal of product and business ideas. My dad told me if you want to make it happen, you need to write it down, so I did. My first big idea was to make a robot daddy, complete with accessories. The idea was that the robot could go to work for [my] dad, and I could play with my dad at home!
How does your whole family work together on this? What's everyone's role?
My dad is in sales, and I had watched him bring other products to market. My mom is in marketing, mostly insurance, and as a mom, she understands what’s important to other moms. My younger sister is my partner. She came up with the name Zolli.
How do the kids at school react to what you do?
My friends are very supportive and think it’s cool. We share Zollipops with them when they ask. We also offer Zollipops to schools across America to help reduce childhood tooth decay. It’s part of our company mission with Zollipops.
What's your favorite Zollipops flavor?
I like strawberry and pineapple. The most popular flavors change from time to time, but orange and strawberry are popular all year long.
What’s next for Zollipops?
We have been working to make the pops better—more stable and less sticky in hot or humid environments. Getting sticky or soft is one of the limitations of most sugar-free candies, and with this new process, we finally figured out how to do some amazing and super fun things. It has taken over two years [to develop our new formula]. The new Zollipops will be coming out later this year, and we are very excited because we will be able to make things no other company has ever done before with tooth-friendly candy.