August 17, 2010 in Business

Ecowell kiosks let thirsty customers use own containers, pick flavors

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Mike Koentopp, a softball player on his way to a game, stops to fill his drink jug at an Ecowell kiosk at the downtown Oz Fitness location last week. The kiosk dispenses water and customized drinks into a customer’s own bottle.
(Full-size photo)

A Pullman startup company hopes to change the way people buy beverages from vending machines. Ecowell, which began as a class project among engineering students at Washington State University, makes kiosks that dispense custom-ordered drinks into bottles or jugs supplied by the consumer.

“We’d like to make Ecowell the Starbucks of convenience beverages, where you design your own drink,” said Don Tilton, the WSU instructor whose students helped launch the business.

Tilton and his partners see several trends that may spur growth:

• Parents and students are eager to replace soda machines in schools with healthy alternatives.

• Green-minded consumers hope to cut the millions of plastic bottles going to landfills.

• Consumers are embracing kiosks and touch screen vending machines, based on the popularity of CoinStar change-conversion machines and the Redbox self-serve DVD movie dispensers.

A key step in Ecowell’s launch was the arrival of a Lake Tahoe partner, Caryn Parker, who was working on the same idea separately. In 2009 Parker joined up with Tilton and students Brian Boler, Reid Schilperoort and Andy Whitaker.

Working from Pullman, the company has built 10 Ecowell kiosks and placed them in schools and offices in Spokane, Reno and Pullman.

The system works this way: Users create an account online and receive a radio-frequency key, which is touched against the kiosk touch screen to start an order. A set of menus appear for plain water or a variety of fruit-based or supplement-enhanced drinks. Drinks can be carbonated or ordered hot or cold. When ready, the buyer puts his or her own container in the dispensing bay, and out comes the drink.

The machine bills the user’s account based on what’s ordered. A 12-ounce bottle of water costs less than 50 cents. A 40-ounce juice drink with supplements costs $3.50 to $3.60.

The juice drinks are made from bags of concentrate inside the kiosks. A series of sanitizers ensures the liquids come out clean, Tilton said.

This fall Spokane Public Schools will test the idea, adding an Ecowell machine outside Ferris High School’s cafeteria.

Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for the district, said the idea is appealing. “It’s something that offers nutritional choices and gives some ecological benefits,” he said. Ferris’ student body will get a share that ranges from 5 percent to 20 percent of the take, depending on the total amount spent per month, said Wordell.

Tilton, who helped launch regional technology company SprayCool in the 1980s, said the next step is to raise capital to build more machines to provide more data on consumer preferences and sales.

“The best analogy,” Tilton said, “is to the distribution of music.” The old system of pressing discs, packaging and shipping them to retail stores is losing ground as consumers and manufacturers see the advantage of selling digital music.

Beverage distribution today is equally hampered by high costs of packaging and intensive refrigeration, he said.

John Reilly, a Seattle consultant and former executive at Bellevue-based CoinStar, has been advising Tilton and the team. “I see this as a very disruptive idea,” he said on a visit to Spokane. “It uses a new distribution channel for consumer drinks. It also appeals on the emotional level in being a healthy alternative and positive for the environment.”

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