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At Phila. U, a basketball standout is also an entrepreneurial hit

Philadelphia University point guard Jordan DeCicco with his Sunniva Super Coffee in the Gallagher Center Gym Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016.
Philadelphia University point guard Jordan DeCicco with his Sunniva Super Coffee in the Gallagher Center Gym Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016.Read more(DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

As a point guard for the men's basketball team at Philadelphia University, Jordan DeCicco is a marvel.

Named the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference's Player of the Week for a two-game performance earlier this month, he averaged nearly 28 points per game, shot nearly 70 percent from behind the 3-point line and 64 percent from the field, and had five assists, four rebounds, and a steal.

Now comes the sophomore's quest to be an entrepreneurial phenom, too - while continuing to make 5 a.m. basketball practices, attend classes, and keep up his grades.

No wonder he needed an energy drink.

Unable to find one that met his standards - that is, not filled with sugar and artificial ingredients - DeCicco, 21, of Kingston in New York's Hudson Valley, made one in his dorm room during freshman year in 2014.

"I decided to make a very healthy coffee," he recalled last week. "I started blending organic coffee with protein and coconut oil, sweetened with organic maple syrup."

He not only got the boost he was seeking, the concoction also tasted good, DeCicco found. The students he asked to try it also liked it.

So in January 2015, DeCicco called his brother Jake, 23, who was majoring in business at Georgetown University, and told him, " 'I have something cool.' He loved the idea of starting a company that revolved around getting healthy products out there that tasted good."

Their Sunniva Super Coffee drinks - which come in 12-ounce bottles and contain 10 grams of lactose-free milk protein isolate - are now selling for about $3.50 each in more than 100 retail locations, including Whole Foods stores from Princeton to Richmond, Va. They debuted on Philadelphia shelves  in the fall in four flavors: hazelnut, vanilla bean, dark mocha, and black brew (an unsweetened option for the true coffee addict).  Sunniva is Norwegian for gift from the sun.

The company, which now also includes DeCicco's other brother, Jim, 24, who left a job on Wall Street as a real estate analyst for the Blackstone Group to help with the coffee venture, ended 2016 reporting $300,000 in sales and projecting $2.5 million in 2017. That's just for the mid-Atlantic region and part of the northeastern United States.

"Then we want to take this thing nationally," DeCicco said, dismissing competitors as "too expensive,  or didn't taste good or have a healthy profile. "

Of the dramatic sales growth he and his brothers expect in the new year, he said: "We are very confident."

Whether that confidence is justified is among the things Stephen Spinelli, president of Philadelphia University and an accomplished entrepreneur as cofounder of Jiffy Lube International, is planning to pursue with DeCicco during an independent-study course in entrepreneurship that starts this semester.

"I'm going to press him hard," Spinelli said. "There's a whole history of iced tea drinks and power drinks that were start-ups. If he can show that this product has that level of market demand that it appears that it has ... then he's going to have the ability to raise the money to bring this to scale pretty quickly."

The business has already tested DeCicco's mettle. Attending Philadelphia University on a full basketball scholarship, he made the tough call after his freshman year to take a year off to get Sunniva Caffe Inc. up and running. Based in Washington, it has six full-time employees and seven part-timers.

In the fall, DeCicco returned to school and the Rams basketball team, stepping down as chief executive of Sunniva, a position now held by brother Jim, who was a running back on Colgate University's football team. Brother Jake is chief operating officer. Jordan is now chairman of the board.

"It's a very unique experience," he said of his business immersion, which isn't just keeping him super busy. "I'm really learning a lot at a young age that I can use for the rest of my life."

For instance? Time management, communication skills, and leadership, he said.

Spinelli, an avid Philadelphia University basketball fan, is impressed that DeCicco came back in fine athletic shape despite taking a year off.

"It really does indicate a person who has discipline," Spinelli said. "He was able to get back on the court and do things that one would have expected him to take a lot longer to do."

And he finished his first semester back with a 3.0 grade-point average.