ReFresh Wins June Amber Grant
Congratulations to Eliza Becton and the ReFresh team, winners of the June Amber Grant Award! Eliza and her 3 partners are on a mission to help consumers kick the habit of buying disposable water bottles, while changing the economics and sustainability of how bottled water is sold.
How are they doing it? By designing and building a network of water vending stations that sell water in reusable bottles. After you’re done, you can deposit the bottle back into their machine for a partial refund, then the machine automatically cleans the bottle for storage and next use.
In comparison to traditional water bottlers, ReFresh produces bottled water at the point of sale to minimize transportation and energy costs, while eliminating extra plastic waste. They solve the key pain points of feeling wasteful by buying bottled water, and also having to remember, carry and clean your reusable water bottle. ReFresh provides pure, filtered and safe water that drastically reduces the consumer’s carbon footprint.
We caught up with Eliza to learn more…
WN: How has your educational background helped you and your partners in business?
EB: My education has definitely played a role in helping us get to where we are. As a mechanical engineer and designer, I’m able to make technical decisions while always thinking about the user experience. I need to make sure the machines we’re building not only function correctly and efficiently on the inside, but are also attractive and intuitive to use. I use my learnings from Yale and the RISD’s Graduate Industrial Design Program every day. However, I also think there is nothing more important than relevant experience and the ability to learn quickly. We are all lucky enough to have incredibly supportive institutions and alumni communities from RISD, Yale, MIT and the MIT Sloan School of Management cheering us on. It certainly helps when you are ingrained in an alumni community that embraces entrepreneurship and ambition like they do at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and within the Yale, RISD and MIT Alumni Association Networks, but our collective past projects and work experiences have been critical to our ability to make important decisions.
WN: Can you tell us more about how you found partners willing to help you, and how much support you give each other?
EB: Sean Grundy (a team member) and I were introduced in September by a classmate of his from MIT Sloan School of Management who knew that we were both passionate about sustainability and startups. We began researching, applying to accelerators, and revising our business model based on the feedback we received. Seeing glimmers of success and recognizing that we couldn’t take on such a huge project alone, we recruited Frank Lee and Teddy Toussaint to our team a few months later. Frank is Sean’s best friend from Sloan, and he has an extensive background in marketing and manufacturing – two areas that are crucial for our success. We met Teddy, a mechanical engineer from MIT, at a business plan competition (which we were so excited to go on to win), and he instantly clicked with the team and our mission. Teddy is our all-star mechanical engineer and has incredibly valuable experience having just finished designing and building a patent-pending smoothie machine.
We genuinely support and rely on each other every day. Our decisions are almost always collaborative, and never made in isolation. It takes the full team to make sure that our business model is sound in terms of engineering, design, marketing, and economics.
WN: Is the machine on your website a prototype? How has the test marketing gone?
EB: The machine currently on our website is actually a decade-old, souped-up snack vending machine. We’re using it to sell reusable bottles and partially reimburse consumers who return them. The market test has been interesting. It’s taken a few weeks to raise awareness for what we’re doing, but we’re starting to get some traction. We’re testing out different pricing models, different types of bottles, etc. to better understand users’ preferences. What we learn will definitely go straight into improving our business plan.
Simultaneously to the market testing, we’ve administered surveys and user interviews to validate our hypotheses and understand our users further. In such a marketing-heavy industry, it’s important to know who our ideal user is and what really matters to them. After this, we can adapt our existing branding to really hone in on the best possible branding and messaging.
Please stay tuned because you will see our first prototype on our website by the end of the summer! At this point we hope to take it and start testing with industry experts such as the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), which is the professional organization for vending machine operators.
WN: Are the water bottles made of glass?
EB: Glass is a material we are considering in the future. Currently, we are using a collapsible, reusable, BPA-free plastic bottle which we will wash and reuse within our system to reduce waste. We also are encouraging our users with incentives to return to our dispensers and refill their bottles on their own, thereby saving yet another plastic bottle from ending up in a landfill.
WN: Wonderful! We’re so excited to see what’s next for you and your team.
EB: Thanks again for this great opportunity! On behalf of the ReFresh team, we are incredibly honored and appreciative!