Columbia Entrepreneurs: The Future of Coffee, with Joshua Avins, co-founder of Voga Coffee

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The team behind beverage startup Voga Coffee claim to have done something that should get every caffeine connoisseur’s attention: “solved the brewing of coffee.” They do it via a proprietary new brewing system for coffee (and tea) that they call Ground Control.

Voga Coffee will be one of several startups chosen to present at the 4th Annual Columbia Startup Demo Night in San Francisco, on September 20, 2018. We caught up with Joshua Avins, PhD, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Voga, to hear their story.

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Joshua Avins, PhD, Co-Founder and CTO of Voga Coffee

CVC: In just a couple of sentences, what does Voga Coffee do?

Your tagline is “batch brewing, re-envisioned.” Can you explain why this is important, who your target customers are, and how you’re offering them something special?

Our brewer consistently brews some of the highest quality coffee in the world. Our coffee is sweeter, less bitter, and less irritating than traditional coffee. This is important for large chains such as Starbucks, Dunkin’s, and McDonald’s, which are currently engaged in a widely publicized coffee war. The CEO of Dunkins has emphasized the importance of quality in winning this war: Nigel Travis, CEO of Dunkin Brands, thinks that “Dunkin just flat out makes better coffee than McDonald’s and that should bode well amidst the coffee wars.”

Ground Control also significantly reduces the number of machines needed to operate a large-scale cafe. Ground Control replaces each device used to brew the following: drip, iced coffee, Cold Brew, espresso-based drinks, hot and cold tea, and Arabic Coffee.

In addition, Ground Control offers one of the most visually compelling experiences available in a cafe today. This is becoming increasingly important in a market where customers want exciting and interactive experiences, yet traditional coffee continues to be brewed in drip brewers whose designs have not changed in thirty years.

Do you have any observations or predictions for the future of coffee that you can share?

At the same time, customers have already started to become much more discriminating in their coffee palette. High quality coffee prices are growing steadily, and absent a way to save on coffee usage, buying a bag of high quality coffee will be too expensive for the majority of consumers.

What’s your background like? What training prepared you for starting a company?

You’re never prepared for the challenges a startup throws at you, but I’ve been grateful to have the basic training on how to systematically approach each problem.

How did the founding team come together? What makes you great co-founders or partners?

The original method, combined with this insight, created a truly special cup of coffee that used 30% less coffee than normal. It was then that we knew we had something special.

Jason, our Chief Coffee Officer, has been on our team since early on. He is one of the most respected coffee tasters in the world. Jason joined our team after being invited to one of our first taste tests, in Eli’s backyard. Jason immediately decided to join the team after trying the transformative cup produced by our primitive prototype. Our coffee has only gotten that much better, since then.

What has been your greatest success so far while building Voga?

Our greatest success has been to earn the glowing recommendations of our customers and the highest award for equipment from the industry. We view this as a strong validation that our product delivers on its promise, and that our value to our customers is strong.

How have your experiences at Columbia University contributed to where you are now?

While building your company, what have you learned so far that you wish someone had told you before you started this journey?

Selling a new product is much harder than designing a new product. Our customers now include top cafes from around the world. But when we first started, we struggled to find our first customers and keep them. Part of our journey has been not only to develop a new product, but to learn how to sell that new product.

Selling is not a series of slick exchanges. It requires significant knowledge of your customer’s needs, and thinking carefully about the value your product brings to bear.

What we’ve discovered with Ground Control is that it has so many capabilities and it’s very versatile, but each customer has its own focus, and honing in on their needs is the key to closing a sale.

What’s the next step for Voga?

Once Cyclops’ launch has taken hold, we will focus on developing lower-cost units, to compete with drip coffee head-to-head, worldwide. We also plan to begin development of a home brewer, which we aim to price at $199, competing head-to-head with mid-priced home coffee brewers.

What are some of your most recent accomplishments? Where can we learn more about you?

Please also check out the world’s first Cyclops at Dandelion Chocolate on 18th and Valencia Street, in San Francisco. We’ve partnered with Dandelion to create an entirely new beverage called Cacao Nib Coffee, which cannot be brewed on any other device. Dandelion brews ground cacao nibs together with coffee in Ground Control to create a uniquely smooth and complex beverage, highlighting chocolate’s nuanced flavors. It’s a unique and very tasty experience.

Thanks Joshua! See you at Demo Night.

To meet the Voga Coffee team, plus four other innovative startups, come to the 4th Annual CVC Demo Night in San Francisco! It’s the biggest event for Columbia entrepreneurs on the West Coast. Get tickets and details here.

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— Irene Malatesta is a writer, marketer, and CVC West board member. You can find her @irenekaoru.

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Founded in 2006, CVC is a private network for Columbia students, alumni, and employees interested in all aspects entrepreneurship.

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