Digging the new EcoWell
by Larry Clark ’94 | © Washington State University
Students and faculty develop a mighty thirst after working out at WSU’s Student Recreation Center, and now they have a new, healthy, and environmentally friendly option to quench it.
The EcoWell vending machine’s slick iPhone-like touchscreen lets users choose their water (purified, carbonated, or hot), add any percentage and mix of juices, and include energy supplements if desired. But thirsty patrons better have their own bottles. An EcoWell machine only dispenses drinks, not disposable containers.
EcoWell grew from the minds and efforts of Reid Schilperoort ’10, Brian Boler ’09, and Andy Whitaker ’09, now at MIT graduate school, when they were students in the College of Engineering and Architecture’s Harold Frank program in 2009. The Frank program brings together engineering and business students interested in technological entrepreneurship.
Schilperoort, who graduated with a business degree last spring, says Boler, an engineering student, had the idea of an environmentally friendly vending machine while he was taking a class from engineering instructor Don Tilton ’85. Tilton was enthusiastic about the idea and is now one of the EcoWell partners.
In the class, says Schilperoort, “We came up with a proof of concept for a refillable drink machine. We did a small version that only dispensed water and tested it around campus, then competed in the statewide business plan competition and won.”
After that, EcoWell began to take off. Caryn Parker, a San Francisco Bay area entrepreneur, had a similar idea, and joined the WSU students and Tilton. The team also began to build on their original concept for the vending kiosk.
“It started off as just a water thing, and then we thought well, let’s add hot water. Let’s add carbonated water, let’s add some flavors. So the next thing you know, it’s a whole customizable, personalized beverage machine,” says Schilperoort.
The machine works with an account set up by a user, who gets a small “touch” tag. When someone wants a drink, they touch the tag to the machine, which then accesses that person’s account. After using the touchscreen to customize a drink, the user places a container under the dispenser—like an old-style coffee vending machine—and gets the order.
EcoWell placed their first kiosk at Lincoln Middle School in Pullman, followed by machines at Avista corporate headquarters in Spokane, Moscow (Idaho) High School, Spokane City Hall, and a few other locations.
The EcoWell team, currently made up of five full-time and several part-time employees, has plans to expand to Washington’s west side, and then down the coast to California.
“Corporate campuses are some of our targets. College campuses, high schools, middle schools, gyms are some of our initial targets for recurring traffic, rather than malls or areas where people might go through only once every couple of weeks,” says Boler.
They also want to provide the machines around Washington State, says Schilperoort. “We’d like to expand to WSU branch campuses, and to different buildings around WSU like the CUB, to create a network where people can fill their bottles all over.”
The nascent company has already begun to get recognition. Perfect Business Summit 2010, designed to bring entrepreneurs and investors together, has already selected EcoWell’s business pitch as one of the top 10 among more than 1,300 entrants. Greater Spokane Inc., devoted to regional economic development, gave its 2010 Catalyst Award for Emerging Innovators of the Year to Schilperoort and Boler.
The EcoWell founders also attended a prestigious TEDx innovation conference last fall, where participants developed ideas to reduce plastic waste. EcoWell’s combination of customer-driven and waste-free service attracted a lot of attention.
“A lot of nonprofits want people to pledge to stop using plastic. Until there’s some technology that can step in and replace that void, it’s really hard for people to change,” says Schilperoort.
He credits the Frank program, started in 2004 by engineering alumnus Harold ’48 and Diana Frank, for spurring the idea to success.
“It’s one of the best-kept secrets at Washington State University. We wouldn’t be here without it, because I never would have partnered up with my team,” says Schilperoort.
In addition to the business success, say Schilperoort and Boler, they are helping the planet. More than 80 million plastic containers are discarded each day in the U.S., and only 20 percent are recycled. They estimate that more than 10,000 containers will be saved each year by the Lincoln Middle School machine alone.
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