Near the end of fall quarter, five students majoring in engineering and computer science had a simple business idea and no business knowledge. This quarter, those same students advanced to the final rounds of the Beall New Venture Competition and the Beall and Butterworth Product Development Competition.
The product these ANTrepreneurs–Siddhant Kasat, Omair Farooqui, Cameron Haddad, Nicholas Vong, and Arya Kalantar–pitched to business owners and technology experts alike reduces energy spent to make coffee. Despite its size, Coffee Buddy is deceiving: depending on the machine, up to 50 percent of electricity expended to make coffee can be directed for other purposes.
Coffee Buddy’s members came together when conducting research for the California Plug Load Research Center (CalPlug). Located in Calit2, CalPlug aims to improve the energy efficiency of electronics. Oddly enough, until 2016, the scope of research did not include energy efficient coffee machines.
“One day during November 2016, we realized that our own coffee maker in the kitchen area was on 24/7. Nobody switched it off when we were leaving,” Siddhant recalled. “So that’s when we realized that it’s an irony that we’re an energy efficient research center but we don’t care about saving energy ourselves.”
And so, the all sophomore team got to work, creating a project with the potential to go to market. The business model itself is composed of two elements, the OEM and retrofit.
“OEM is licensing the intelligence software to the original manufactures of the coffee maker,” explained Omair. “They would be making a new coffee maker with our intelligence, making it smart. The retrofit side is more targeted for coffee makers in use right now.”
The retrofit model depends on connecting a black box, roughly the size of a book, to coffee machines in order to provide them intelligence features. The box will raise the temperature of the pot when it senses nearby customers, workers, or students.
After a proof of concept prototype was well received by AT&T and IBM in December, the team developed the product for another demonstration in March. Again, the five students drew in the attention of companies, and even Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks wanted to help conduct field tests.
“The first major milestone was demonstration of the proof of concept,” Siddhant stated. “We had this idea and we weren’t sure that it was going work. The first demonstration was really important, and getting that feedback from different companies really helped us gain confidence.”
“The second part was getting grants from UROP, from UCI. We didn’t have any grants from our own CalPlug” to fund the research. “We were determined to make marks for ourselves.”
Leaving a mark however, entailed challenges.
“None of us had the experience for business or marketing,” Omair reflected. “The initial challenge all of us faced was: what was the business model? How does it work?”
Although the five reached out to experienced students and businesspeople on the UC Irvine campus, Coffee Buddy still needed to make tough decisions.
OEMs and retrofitting wasn’t always in the picture. When beginning, “one of the issues was that we had two ideas of the route for the company: retrofits, or OEMs,” explained Nicholas. “The problem was, we had no idea how the business side worked. So we had this idea and how to implement them, but without understanding the market landscape of it.”
At the same time, Coffee Buddy entered the Beall New Venture Competition (NVC), an annual contest in which teams create their own startup in half a year. To write a business plan, network, organize, pitch, and develop the product is no small task. Reaching out to MBA students, professors, and even the ANTrepreneur Center helped to “develop a feasible business model in a few weeks,” said Nicholas.
Moreover, the NVC provided workshops to educate the STEM majors about business, but preparing still felt rushed.
“I feel we wasted a lot of time in the last weeks of the winter quarter and the initial weeks of the spring quarter,” Siddhant mentioned. “We were busy developing our product, and we didn’t focus on presenting the product.”
“No matter how great your technology is, if you don’t know to market and present it, the message and vision will get lost,” added Omair.
Coffee Buddy, however, still has a next time. “We might be the youngest team in the NVC. So we have two more years to win this!” said Siddhant.
And the ANTrepreneurs are taking more opportunities to extend its influence outside of competitions, too. Current research and development is focusing on increasing the intelligence–and effectively, efficiency–of retrofitted and OEM integrated machines. Expanding that intelligence to other household products and office products, like water coolers and projectors, is also a long term feature, but will only come with more technology and business.