Seattle startup Atomo Coffee has developed the first beanless, molecular coffee. They claim to offer the same cup of joe as your local coffee shop without sourcing a single coffee bean.
How it works: With numerous environmental and supply chain concerns surrounding coffee bean sourcing, Atomo has switched lanes, looking to create a beanless coffee alternative that’s both sustainable and less expensive — with the same great flavor, body, and aroma.
Funding: $2.6M in seed funding led by Horizons Ventures
We chatted with co-founder & CTO Jarret Stopforth about:
- Coffee’s dire situation and the need for a sustainable alternative
- Aspirations to become the “Tesla of Coffee”
- Recreating the experience of coffee
What inspired you to start Atomo?
I’m an avid coffee drinker. I love coffee. But I started to become very disappointed in coffee — I’d go across the street and I’d order the same cup every day, and they’d be different each time: overly roasted and bitter. Given my background—I have a doctorate in food science and microbiology and I’ve been in the CPG arena for over 20 years innovating and developing foods and beverages—the first thing that came to mind was to hack it. I thought: there has got to be a way that I can build this from the ground up and dial in consistently great coffee.
We all love the caffeine fix and starting our day with the aroma and taste of coffee, but all that can be achieved without the bean, and without all the negative consequences currently associated with bean-based coffee. We can give you all that you want and even dial back some of the things you don’t, like by reducing acidity and bitterness.
What drove the creation of a beanless coffee?
Coffee is in trouble. It may not be with us in 50 years from now in the way that we know it, but we are building the future of coffee. We are building a sustainable way to continue to enjoy the world’s number one drug.
Sure, there’s magic to that bean, but that bean is also the problem. There’s a minimum of 20 supply chain steps from the farm to your cup— immense water use, immense transportation, handling, and trade costs—and we can get around all of that because we don’t need the bean. We are literally cutting down forests to grow this bean, all to sustain our non-essential demand.
Coffee only grows at a certain latitude and altitude, and there are only so many places like that in the world. Most of these places are not primary coffee drinkers, and 15 of the world’s top coffee drinking countries can’t grow a single bean. Illy, one of the largest coffee barons, has said that in 30 years, 50% of plantations will have to be relocated. That means 50% will have to do what is called upfarming, in which they move further up the hill.
With mounting environmental pressures and a fungus called rust destroying coffee plants, we’re starting to tip the limits of where we can go as far as global production without severely impacting the environment or the consistency and quality of the product.
This makes for a beautiful convergence of what we see as an opportunity to step in and become the ‘Tesla of Coffee’. We provide the first option for people to have the same coffee experience without a bean.
Our long-term vision is supplying the wants and needs of people while being better for the environment, sustainable, and around for the future.
What has your journey looked like so far?
We started building prototype after prototype in my garage until finally we had a blend that actually looked and tasted like coffee. We did a Kickstarter campaign not to raise money but to prove that people would buy it. We sold over 60,000 individual cups of coffee to over 700 different people, and showed that people are interested in the future of coffee.
Ten days later, after we had officially announced our company, we had an investment group fly in from Hong Kong. We had a terms sheet signed in a couple of weeks, which is essentially unheard of.
The investment partner was Horizons Ventures, who were early investors in JUST Foods, Impossible Meats, Perfect Day, and Endless West, who create whiskey without the barrel. They’re a really strategic investor, and from there, we scaled up, opened an office, hired our people, and really dove in to perfect our technology.
How does Atomo Coffee work?
Essentially, we’ve mapped coffee and refined it to its critical components. There are over a thousand unique compounds in coffee, but there are a select few that make up what we call the big five: color, aroma, body, flavor, and bioactives (i.e. caffeine). We’ve mapped out the compounds in each category and found upcycled materials that we can take from an existing stream, where we don’t have to plant new plants or crops. Instead, we can take those same components that are analogous to those in coffee and build this drink from the exact same components from a feel, color, caffeine, aroma, and flavor standpoint.
We have a ready-to-drink cold brew beverage with an eye to go to market in 2020, and we’re working on building a plant-based mocha and latte. At the same time, we’re working on grounds so that we can one-for-one replace what people are drinking from an espresso machine—for people that love that ritual of actually seeing it draw—while also developing a concentrate that can be used by food services.
We are nose-deep in R&D making sure that we optimize the product, and with the interest we’ve been seeing, we’re likely going to go and raise another round of funding very quickly. This is my fourth startup, and it has been really unusual — typically there’s a five- to six-month road show to go and raise money. We have between three to four calls a week come in organically, but we’re making sure to hit our milestones before accepting new funding.
In doing so, we aim to launch a pilot facility to begin various operations for building the beverage, with a ready-to-drink beverage set to enter the market in 2020 and the grounds to follow.
Check out Atomo on their website.
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