Our team is dedicated to finding and telling you more about the web’s best products. If you purchase through our links, we may receive a commission. Our editorial team is independent and only endorses products we believe in.
Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
In a fitting first exchange, I met Rainbo founder Tonya Papanikolov over mushroom lattes in Venice Beach. I had admired the brand from afar (take a peek at this stunning website and you’ll understand why) and was enraptured by the stories and energy she shared around it. Yes, functional mushrooms – which are celebrated for their health benefits like boosted immunity, increased energy, and improved digestion – have popped up in snacks and sprays and sodas in the past few years, but Rainbo was built to capture more than market share.
In this conversation, Papanikolov explains her thoughtful decision to found the brand (before functional mushrooms were cool, for the record) and the care that she’s infused into each Rainbo tincture. The world of Rainbo is a rich and colorful one – dive in below.
Let’s start with your path to Rainbo.
TP: “I've been on a healing journey for a large part of my life. It started with trying to find answers to symptoms I was experiencing and not being able to get answers from a traditional Western system.
In 2011, I went to a conference and heard about functional fungi and mushrooms for the first time. Eventually the head of the conference became my mentor and taught me how to forage in our Canadian forests. I went back to school and studied holistic nutrition, which was when I started to really feel some of my symptoms shift as a result of reishi and developed a deep appreciation for what medicinal mushrooms can do.
In 2017 and 2018, I dove into books and research and was ‘mushroomed’ – they’re such a clear answer. It became so evident to me that our relationship to fungi was going to be a turning point for humanity and how we can start to really transform the planet on so many different levels.”
What motivated you to turn this personal interest into a brand?
TP: “It was a big decision. And yet there was honestly nothing I could do about it. Rainbo came through me – it was basically like birthing a child – and its inception was a really powerful and potent time.
I wanted to have a bigger impact than I could with just my two hands (I was cooking and doing private cheffing at the time). I had this fascination with mushrooms, and as I chatted with my mentors, they were like, ‘You light up when you talk about mushrooms – you should explore that.’
I held a personal ceremony with fungi to put my ideas onto paper. And I was ultimately asking for permission from this fungi spirit to essentially create a product in our capital world that came from nature. It was very important that I feel I am not extracting from nature, because we live in such an extractive society.”
Will you share the experience of naming Rainbo?
TP: “One of my best friends has an amazing branding company (@designofbrand), which she was launching at the same time that I was launching Rainbo. We went to her cabin in Northern Ontario and set the intention of finding a name for this company. I gave us a microdose (which was accidentally a bit more than a microdose), and we started to say words and feelings that I wanted Rainbo to be.
I still have this massive piece of paper that I will always keep and cherish. And it has every single name that we put down. As we started to get more into the experience and feel the mushrooms more strongly, we decided it was time to wrap up. And the last thing I said was ‘rainbow’ – but she wrote ‘rainbo.’ We realized that it looked really cool because a rainbow actually looks like a mushroom cap. We woke up in the morning and looked at this piece of paper that was lying on the floor and were like, ‘Well, that's it, it's Rainbo.’”
Switching gears into education a bit, you just mentioned a psychedelic experience, but that’s not what you’re bottling and selling. For someone who’s newer to this world, can you give a brief Functional Mushrooms 101 lesson?
TP: “When I started the company, I found a lack of transparency – nobody could really tell me where their mushrooms were coming from. I was excited to build the values and principles into Rainbo that I wanted to know. I developed a relationship with a Canadian grower, and we focused on five main mushrooms. We have an 11:11 tincture with 11 medicinal mushrooms in it, and then we have a range of our five other mushrooms: lion's mane, reishi, cordyceps, chaga, and turkey tail. They all have a range of benefits and are legal with Health Canada and FDA compliant.
All mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which have immune boosting properties. Mushrooms grow in the forest (or are cultivated indoors), in a humid environment (they’re filled with 80-90% water) before getting dried. There’s a process to extract the beneficial medicinal compounds – what that means is we're breaking down the cell wall so that it’s digestible and absorbable for the body. Our mushrooms undergo a dual extraction process: both ethanol and hot water extract out the most complete range of soluble compounds from the mushrooms.
In terms of what we offer, we have reishi, which is a famous de-stressor. It’s an adaptogen, so it survives in a really intense environment in nature and then confers those adaptive benefits (like finding balance and equilibrium) to our body. We have lion’s mane, which offers mental clarity. Then we have chaga, which is a really potent antioxidant great for anti-aging. Cordyceps is our energizing mushroom that’s been used by a lot of athletes to increase and boost cellular energy in the form of ATP. And then turkey tail, which has immune benefits and is great for the gut.”
Mushrooms are a really buzzy and of-the-moment topic right now. How are you building Rainbo for longevity?
TP: “When I started Rainbo, Michael Pollan hadn’t written his book yet – that was a critical turning point where fungi and plant medicine was brought into mass consciousness. It is amazing that this knowledge and education and interest is becoming more popularized, and it's really just the beginning.
We still have a long way to go in terms of getting outside the wellness bubble and really expanding into mass markets. And one company can’t do everything. But the integrity with which we do things is important. As a woman who is really passionate about building a mission driven company and everybody I work with, I come back to what grounds Rainbo – our roots and mission.
I'm looking at how we can scale and grow our business sustainably and have the right partners involved to take it to the next level. I'm excited to explore more accessibility of these mushrooms and product formats to reach people outside the wellness sphere and touch people everywhere.”
I add Reishi to my morning coffee and bask in the calm focus it adds to each day. If you’re interested in dipping a toe into the functional mushroom world, Rainbo is an excellent place to start. Peruse the brand’s thoughtfully-made tinctures here, and stay tuned for more – we’ll be back with launch news later this year.