It was 2013 when Sean Grundy, Eliza Becton, and Frank Lee were in a pickle. Their futuristic reusable water bottle dispensing machine wasn’t doing its one job: dispensing water or water bottles. And they were in the beginning stages of applying for the Boston Techstars Accelerator program, which required submitting a video.
“We decided to make a bet that we could get the prototype working in time should Techstars become interested in us further down the application process,” Lee, 33, recalls. Being entrepreneurs, they got innovative. “We had Eliza hide inside the machine and then manually act out the functions of the prototype from the inside,” Lee continues, noting Becton, 32, was the only one with the stature small enough to fit inside the defunct machine. “We filmed the prototype as if it was functioning properly and then submitted the application with little hope.”
But Techstars liked what they saw. By the time the trio was selected for the in-person interview, their water dispenser was working flawlessly. Three years later, and the team is no longer three members. Now they are a team of 40 in three offices, backed by $14 million in venture capital investments, and, yes, graduates of the competitive and intense Techstars accelerator program. Their product, Bevi, is also in kitchens and break rooms at Netflix, Twitter, Lyft, Buzzfeed, General Electric, Intel, and KPMG, among others.
Last year was a banner one for Bevi. The company, which sells an internet-connected flavored water dispensing machine for $300 to $600 a month, depending on company size, grew by 1,000%. They expanded outside of corporate office spaces into hotels and gyms, opening another massive market. More than 600 of their machines are placed in offices, gyms, and hotels around the nation. And they predict their machines save about four million bottles of water from ending up in a landfill each year.
FROM TAIWAN TO A TOILET PAPER PLANT IN RURAL MISSOURI
Lee, who spent the first decade of his live in his native Taiwan, grew up dreaming of owning a business.
“While most kids want to be baseball players or movie stars, honestly, I just wanted to be a businessman. An entrepreneur,” he says. Before immigrating to the United States at age 10, Lee watched his parents run a manufacturing company in Taipei, the country’s capital. His family moved to New Orleans and then Houston before Lee left to study chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduation in 2005, Lee didn’t exactly go straight into the glamorous life of running his own venture. He went to manufacturing toilet paper in a Proctor & Gamble paper plant in rural Missouri.
“I was really proud of it,” Lee says of his first professional job in the small town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “I actually remember the first date with my wife, I looked to see what type of toilet paper towel she was buying.”
Because, you know, that’s a potential deal-breaker.
MIT SLOAN: MATCHING BUSINESS PARTNERS AND SPOUSES
After three years in Missouri’s Bootheel region, Lee moved to a brand management and marketing position at P&G’s Cincinnati, Ohio office. “I realized the marketing function really runs P&G, so for me to really learn how to run a business, that was the best place to spend my time,” Lee reasons. After almost two years in that role, Lee made his move to Stanford-founded social venture, Driptech. Designed as a drip irrigation system for farmers in developing nations, Driptech was Lee’s first taste of startup life and sustainability. He bounced between offices in Silicon Valley and Beijing.
In an occurrence that can only be described as Cosmic Serendipity, Grundy walked into Lee’s Beijing office in the summer of 2011. The two had never met. Grundy, 32, was working for the conservation nonprofit, Rare and was based in Kunming, China. As Lee describes, Grundy “spent a lot of his time trying to convince villagers in China not to over-fish,” potentially killing off entire populations of fish. “He’s a big conservation guy,” Lee confirms.
Grundy reached out to Driptech on a potential partnership. Halfway through the meeting, Lee decided to Google search the business card Grundy handed him at the beginning of the meeting. He found they both were enrolling in the full-time MBA program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in a few months. The two hit it off immediately.
“Sloan has been great to me, personally, because that’s where I met Sean and my wife,” Lee laughs. “I definitely got my money’s worth when I went to business school.”
‘OUT-DESIGNING’ THE BOTTLED WATER INDUSTRY
Lee says he chose Sloan, where he ended up rooming with Grundy, because of its “friendlier culture that emphasized entrepreneurship.” Grundy and Lee were working on two different sustainability-focused entrepreneurship projects when Grundy met Becton through mutual friends. Becton, who had just graduated with a masters in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design, focused her master’s thesis on a way to “out-design” bottled water.
At this point, most rational humans have acknowledged the environmental detriments caused by plastic bottles. It takes the average plastic bottle about 1,000 years to fully biodegrade. Landfills and now our oceans are increasingly inundated by plastic, much of which comes from bottled beverages. According to the most recent available data from the International Bottled Water Association, more than 11.7 billion gallons of water was bottled worldwide in 2015, which was the highest amount ever.
Undaunted, the trio set out with one main goal: kill the water bottle. So they called the company Refresh and built their first reusable bottled water dispenser. “A lot of the early prototypes were super embarrassing,” Lee remembers. But the “super embarrassing” products that they routinely tested with the public pushed them to continually innovate and evolve the product. “That got us to learn very quickly,” Lee says of the first trial runs.