Created to be sustainably optimized, the world’s first printed—and waterless in shipment—beverages are energized for new products, packaging and markets.
Chris Kanik’s career path is, as everyone’s, a unique one, but his is singularly remarkable. For one thing, he may be the only person to start working in an American Chemical Society lab at age 12 and years later, after relocating from New York City, enjoy a stint as a stand-up comedian in California.
Kanik’s one-of-a-kind path continues as first an inventor and now chief excitement officer, aka founder and CEO, for Smart Cups, based in Mission Viejo, CA. The namesake product is based on patented technology for one-of-a-kind cups printed with functional ecapsulated ingredients that consumers activate by adding adding water to at the point of use.
Here are seven noteable aspects of Smart Cups’ past, present and future.
1. Humble, yet explosively productive, beginnings.
The idea for Smart Cups was sparked by a margarita, specifically due to Kanik’s impatience awaiting the drink’s arrival from a too-busy server at Taco Tuesday circa 2010.
Kanik recalls thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could just add ingredients to my cup of water ala Crystal Light and make my own drink?” On a napkin he jotted down the basic protocols that led to in-home experimentation using Everclear and filters.
Although he succeeded in blowing up his kitchen, Kanik also created three different flavors of a dried, reconsitutable alcohol.
In 2012/2013, he partnered with an inventor to develop a patented delivery system based on printed technology that permits the printing of ingredients on a substrate.
That’s when they realized that the government would never allow a rehydratable alcohol drink into market. Kanik proceeded down a different path and, today, has overseas operations in a 23,000-sq-ft facility with 16 employees.
2. The relaunch of proof-of-concept energy drinks.
Smart Cups have been in the market since December 2017 when they were introduced in six flavors, all of which were taken out of circulation over the past months.
Smart Cups were relaunched in October 2019 with what Kanik claims are better-tasting flavors: berry blast, tropical punch and green tea lemon and the most popular, raspberry lemonade.
Kanik considers the line of energy drinks as a proof-of-concept rather than the best version of the technology.
“It’s not that I loved energy drinks,” he tells Packaging Digest, “but because I wanted to prove the functionality and versatility of the technology—that we can print caffeine, amino acids, vitamins inside a cup. A short time after adding water, the user has an energy drink.”
Kanik entered the mainstream beverage market because it was viewed as the easiest path to commercial acceptance.
3. Waterless advantages.
Smart Cups’ fundamental advantage versus standard drinks is the sharp reduction of storage and transportation requirements. Kanik explains that a truck that delivers 96,000 12-oz beverage cans now deliver 1.2 million units of that beverage in Smart Cups and with a significant weight reduction.
Having the ingredients in dry encapsulated form particularly for sensitive functional formulations protects against microbial growth while greatly improving shelf life.
"Currently, shelf life is declared at one year, but we are working towards improvements that will extend that for way beyond the average consumable," Kanik says.
Notably, the Smart Cups manufacturing process uses no water.
4. Processing, manufacturing and upgrades.
From a regulatory view, Smart Cups’ patented formulation uses only ingredients generally recognized as safe, or GRAS. At the heart of the patent and printable aspect is a food-safe polymer that protects the ingredients within that activates and dissolves in contact with a liquid, presumably water. The products dissolve in 45 to 90 seconds.
"The technical description is that the material is amphiphilic, meaning that it has both hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties," Kanik explains.
Kanik says the entire two-part process of chemistry/formulation followed by manufacturing is critical to their success.
As for the printing, Kanik will only acknowledge that “it’s not technically 3D printing” as some have surmised. “We built all our manufacturing equipment from scratch, and it takes a lot of art in addition to the science,” he adds.
Output has grown from making batches of 50 to 100 in the lab to thousands in the plant, a capability that will further be “tremendously increased by mid-2020” through automation upgrades.
Sold only online at the company website and at Amazon, the cups are available in two multipack sizes: 5- and 10-pack pouches made of a moisture-resistant, heat-sealed polyfilm pouch with press-to-close reseal that retail for $11.99 and $15.99 respectively; the latter works out to about $1.60 per energy drink, Kanik points out.
The 9-oz serving size makes for faster consumption versus the industry standard 12-oz size, but users can dilute to whatever strength they prefer—it’s the labeled dosage regardless of dilution, he says.
The company is expanding the printing technology to include the interior cup sides as well. “That provides more surface to increase the flavor profile and allows for more complex formulations,” Kanik says.
Next: New packaging, products and markets
Now made of PLA, next-generation Smart Cups may include recycled paper, edible materials and hot beverages.
5. PLA cups for now, but next…
The cups, which serve as container and ingredient carrier, are made of polylactic acid (PLA) and supplied by Fabri-Kal, preprinted with the brand logo and related information.
“I didn’t want a typical plastic and we weren’t ready to use paper,” explains Kanik of the decision. “Consumers needed to see and experience the Smart Cups in action.” Note that the photos are of actual Smart Cups.
Now the company is considering other substrate options.
“We can print onto virtually any surface, recycled paper, edible materials…you name it, we can print on it,” he offers. “We could print coffee complete with flavor, sweetener and creamer.”
That would require hydration using hot water reconstitution for which PLA is unsuitable, so Kanik would look into recyclable paper cups.
Other cup sizes are on the table as well.
6. The model—and a demographic shock.
Smart Cups’ direct-to-consumer business model was done primarily because Kanik wanted to understand the consumer mindset.
“It’s a technology that has not existed so we’re creating awareness and education as well as creating new brand with no footprint or track record, but asking consumers to trust us and buy it.
“We’re creating a completely new consumer behavior,” he says. “With a can or bottle, the consumer perceives a value based on the product’s weight. With Smart Cups you’re holding an empty cup.”
The energy drinks’ target were on a core demographic of males aged 18 to 35 as was the company’s marketing support.
Six months later, Kanik received a shock about their actual customers.
“I found that 98% of sales were from females age 25 to 45 predominately from the Midwest and South,” he says. “Now we’re increasing our demographic as more males adopt it.”
The product and its unique technology have drawn the interest Kanik hoped they would.
“We made splash with something new and companies came to me,” he reports, including in licensing the technology. Kanik will consider those existing options and new ones in the coming months. “It will be a very exciting time for us,” he states.
7. Beyond energy drinks and beverages.
“We’ve had continual growth, but I’m excited about the next 18 months as we make a big push in diversifying our product offerings,” says Kanik. Smart Cups’ upcoming beverage category offerings include kids’ beverages, electrolytes, coffees, teas and even alcohol beverages.
Why alcohol versions now that were dismissed years ago?
"The government is opposed to powder versions of alcohol," explains Kanik. "Because it is a dosing technology, our printing technology solves all issues associated with free-floating powder alcohol. Ours is en ecapsulated ethanol. Each serving is precisely alcohol by volume, which satisfies concerns from both regulatory and taxation standpoints. Further, if someone tried to scrape it, it would liquify and denature, solving the safety issues."
The range of categories is expansive and far afield of drinks.
“We have a rich pipeline of innovative ideas from cosmetics to food to industrial cleaners to prescription and over-the-counter drugs,” he states.
Potential markets include hospitals, stadiums, schools and cafeterias.
“Instead of apple juice, kids could have a range of calcium and vitamin fortified drinks,” he says. “Any application where the reduction of transportation and storage requirements are advantageous.”
Those include humanitarian endeavors throughout the world.
“I always knew that the tech presented storage and transportation advantages, but I didn’t realize how important that really is to the world—it’s really shocking the limitations in sharing resources across the globe,” Kanik reports. “An airplane can only get so many supplies to a relief area in Africa, this technology will greatly improve that.
“That’s the thing I’m most passionate about it. I got into this to make a difference in the world—and Smart Cups is the technology that can do that.”
Kanik will be speaking at The Packaging Conference, Feb. 3-5, at the AT&T Conference Center, Austin, TX, and will feature new plastic and packaging technology for sustainability.