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Camcup – Spark's solution to our environmental coffee cup crisis

Camcup – Spark's solution to our environmental coffee cup crisis

8 January 2018

Camcup is a re-usable cup made using the waste produced by our global caffeine addiction – spent coffee grounds. Inventors Gareth Roberts and Dr Xiaobin Zhao came up with the product as a way to showcase their new fusion of plant and plastic technology, which recycles waste, reduces carbon emissions, and saves the customer money.

“Taking part in Design Council Spark has completely energised us and transformed the project,” says Gareth Roberts, entrepreneur and co-inventor of Camcup. “We started out the process with a background technology and just one product to serve as an example of it, and now we have a whole new business”.

Gareth is no stranger to tech and innovation. After a career teaching medicine and then working in big-pharma he moved into entrepreneurship after completing an MBA. He has been involved in high tech start-ups ever since, moving new technologies sideways to create novel commercial uses and products.

Taking part in Design Council Spark has completely transformed the project. Now we have a whole new business.

Gareth Roberts, Camcup

Dr Xiaobin Zhao was a former collaborator of Gareth’s, who had worked with him on a stem cell technology project in the past. “Zhao came to me with this idea he had for a kind of industrial adhesive,” says Gareth. They worked on the idea together and Gareth’s well-practiced ability to pivot technologies led them to realise that what they actually had was an idea for a new kind of environmentally friendly plastic. One that was partly made from waste organic matter and completely recyclable.

“Green plastic – that’s a big idea,” says Gareth. “We realised pretty quickly that we needed to find a way to communicate it to people in a more manageable way. Around that time there was a lot in the press about the problems with the coffee industry – both the disposal of the non-recyclable cups it was often sold in, and with the waste coffee grounds it produced. We saw an opportunity to apply the technology and solve those problems in one go. We envisaged a reusable, recyclable coffee cup made partly from coffee grounds. And an easy story to tell people to get the idea across.”

Gareth and Zhao’s original motivation for applying for the Spark programme and fund was very straightforward. “We just wanted to make our product look nice,” says Gareth. “The thing we had designed was technically feasible, but looked ugly and utilitarian. We had rather grandiose ideas about producing the ‘iphone of coffee cups’ and we hoped that we could leverage the expertise that was embedded in Design Council Spark to achieve that. We are great at doing the tech, but making it attractive – not really our area!”

As it turned out, Spark helped the pair to achieve a whole lot more than their aesthetic goals.

They quickly realised that the programme was far more practical and hands on than other programmes they had been involved in. “Rather than just giving you the theory and focussing on how to pitch a business plan, Spark was much more about the nitty-gritty,” says Gareth. “And because you are doing this with people who really know their stuff everything you cover, and every question you ask, moves the project on in practical terms.”

Spark is like a series of little awakenings, which guide you and ultimately stop you wasting lot of money and time.

Gareth Roberts, Camcup

Spark introduced Gareth and Zhao to the concept of applying design thinking to their project and he credits this with removing a lot of the risk. “We found that our sessions with mentors could end up being a two-hour discussion and interrogation of our approach. They prompted us to think about things that otherwise we would never have considered,” Gareth says. “For example the fact that the packaging is important. It might seem obvious, but it hadn’t entered our consciousness at all until it came up in one of our workshops.”

All this new information prompted Gareth and Zhao to go out and do some market research. “The programme made us focus much more on listening,” says Gareth. “Otherwise it is easy to get wrapped up in your product and your wonderful tech - to think ‘if we make it, they will buy it’. Then you actually go out and talk to people, and they surprise you with statements like ‘Actually I don’t want a product with a handle’.”

Gareth rather poetically describes the Spark programme as a “series of little awakenings and experiences, which guide you and ultimately stop you wasting lot of money and time.”

These awakenings led them to develop the product significantly, not least because it became two quite distinct products, one for the b2b market and one for consumers to buy. “This was very much a consequence of the process of developing the branding while we were on the Spark programme,” says Gareth. “Prior to doing that the only really big decision we’d made about the product was that we wanted it to be known for its design, with an additional layer of story around its environmental credentials. But now we have these two products catering to two completely different markets.”

The Camcup project is now moving at seeming light-speed. With the aim of getting the product to market early next year they’re working with two design houses on the two iterations. They plan to move beyond Camcup to a full range of homewares. Gareth is talking to the people that will be doing the design engineering and is lining up conversations to start getting the supply chain organised. And he’s taking their idea out into the world – he recently presented Camcup at the RSA in London.

The programme allows you to try out your ideas in a safe space, before you’ve spent lots of money

Gareth Roberts, Camcup

Gareth and Zhao were able to move their product along substantially during the Spark programme, but for Gareth the key take out was about the people that they met. “Being able to access other people’s practical experience was invaluable,” he says. “We all tend to value our own experience, but being on a programme like this and sharing the process with others makes you realise how much other people can bring. Through our conversations with others on the course and our mentors, we were able to make much better decisions. And the programme allows you to try out your ideas in a safe space, before you’ve spent lots of money. It takes away so much of the risk.”

Camcup are a Design Council Spark 2017 awardee. Design Council Spark is a support and funding programme designed to help you turn your bright idea into a commercially successful product.

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