Nathan Altman hasn’t always been in the soda business – with a degree in engineering and a background in robotics, his wheelhouse is more software than soft drinks. But with uFlavor, Altman and co-founders Michael Cloran and Mike Mitchell are using concepts from the tech world to change the way people think of soda forever.
“There’s a big barrier right now in getting into the beverage market, where you have to have big lots or big runs of product and distribution and shelf space and all of these other issues,” says Altman, calling from his base in Indianapolis. To overcome that barrier, uFlavor’s founders looked to the software industry concept of platforms.
“Like YouTube: before it was very difficult and costly to produce and distribute videos, so in the software sense they came in and built a platform to distribute videos,” says Altman. “You saw the same thing in the cell phone industry with Apple, where they actually had a physical piece of hardware in cell phone industry, and they said let’s open it up to allow anybody to create different applications. When those were emerging, we said – could you do the same thing in beverage? Could you actually break down what a drink consists of? The sweetener system, the acids, the different flavoring ingredients, the carbonation levels, basically anything that creates a drink – could you actually allow that to become a platform?”
It’s looking like the answer is: yes. As “the world’s first user-generated refreshment company,” internet start-up uFlavor offers a platform to create and ship entirely unique products by cutting out the middleman and breaking down soda to its individual components. Altman and Mitchell’s prototype machine will eventually allow users the world over to choose flavors, carbonation levels, sweetener types, and labels to create their own soda. “It’s a fun and complicated process – as in any good platform, somebody’s taken a really complex problem and distilled it down to make it easier for people to interact with,” says Altman. “You’ll have different ingredients, different sweeteners that you can use. Think of it as painting with flavors.”
Of course, you have to start somewhere. Right now uFlavor offers four prototype flavors (with a fifth one on the way) created by friends of the company, to give consumers a small taste of what’s to come. In addition, a new contest on the site invites newcomers to try their hand at flavor mixing – nine finalists will have Beta access to uFlavor’s soda-creating technology before the widespread launch, and the Grand Prize winner will be flown out to uFlavor’s headquarters to test their creation onsite. “It’s going to be something that will continue to build out education about what it means to create a drink,” Altman explains. “That’s exciting for us because it provides knowledge for people to understand overall the picture of what it would take to create a beverage flavor.”
With every new project, the company is getting closer to its ultimate goal of working directly with consumers. “The idea is to always get closer and closer to the consumer, so that people can interact with it in an almost instantaneous real-time experience,” says Altman. “That’s our goal, retail or vending units or different ways to take that platform out to people.”
But for now, the internet is doing its job of getting the word out to consumers of all types. “That’s kind of the essence of it – everyone from celebrities who want to promote themselves through taste and drinks, all the way to people that just want to have fun creating things that they haven’t done before,” says Altman. “Who knows what different tastes will come out if you’re able to live on the long tail and find smaller and smaller markets?” If uFlavor takes off, we’re about to find out.