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

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.

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

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

Joshua Avins: Voga Coffee manufactures Ground Control, the first new type of batch coffee and tea brewing system to come to market since 1954. Our technology brews a significantly better cup, using less coffee, and provides a much stronger customer experience. Many of our customers have been able to significantly increase their revenues through Ground Control.

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 target customers are anyone in the world who brews coffee or tea, including cafes, offices, hotels, convenience stores, and homes. Our brewer can use 20–30% less coffee than automated drip, and in many cases, 50% less coffee than pour over. Our customers are able to charge, on average, $.30 more per cup, while also saving $3000/year on lower coffee usage, resulting in a return on investment of four months for a typical cafe.

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?

In the future, coffee will be a lot more expensive, and higher quality coffee will become exceedingly rare. Today, we see tremendous growth in coffee consumption across the world, especially in China, and it’s predicted that in just a few years, the world’s demand for coffee will outstrip our ability to increase the amount of arable land used to grow coffee.

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?

My work up until coffee was 100% biotech research. My academic research was at the interface of chemistry and biology, working with RNA, DNA, and proteins. The research was always challenging, constantly learning new ways to approach problem-solving.

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?

Eli Salomon, our CEO, and I have known each other for nearly twenty years. We met first week of undergrad. He called me up one day with a crazy idea on a new way to brew coffee, and I flew down to San Francisco so I could design and run the experiment. I discovered that his proposed method was a great way to brew coffee, but it was missing an important chemistry insight that I was able to share.

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 guiding light as a company has always been to ensure the success and satisfaction of our customers. That is our first priority.

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?

I earned my Ph.D. in chemistry while at Columbia. My chemistry thesis project did not have a direct connection to coffee brewing, but the Columbia training on learning how to solve problems and learning how to approach problems in new ways from wholly disparate vantage points did directly contribute.

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

We’ve been very fortunate to work closely with Zev Siegl, one of Starbucks’ three original founders. Zev is a senior advisor to Voga and has taught us a great deal about launching a successful business. One of his key teachings has been to focus on sales, and growing a customer base as quickly as possible.

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?

We’ve been beta testing the pre-production model of our new, award-winning Ground Control Cyclops brewer at Dandelion Chocolate, which is regarded as one of the world’s top chocolatiers, for the past four months. We will be launching our production model this month, and have already sold units to and received deposits from some of the world’s most regarded cafes. Over the next year, we will focus on the worldwide growth of Cyclops, and hiring a VP of Sales.

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?

Ground Control recently won the 2018 Specialty Coffee Association Best New Product Award for Commercial Equipment. We were honored to be declared the winner, having the coffee industry recognize that Ground Control is the significant most industry launch of the year. Our product was selected among eight competitors, representing tens of millions of dollars in R&D invested.

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.

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