Engineering In Action

The Warmup

Two seniors make time for product development and a startup.

By Meg Murphy

With graduation on the horizon, MIT students Gabe Alba and Victoria Gregory have work to do. They have a promising idea, a series of prototypes, and if all goes according to plan, a trendy product that will satisfy a coffee drinker’s desire.

Dreamed up two months ago, their device is the Coffee Cookie — a lightweight, circular object that attaches to the bottom of disposable coffee cups. It looks like a sea-blue casino chip but in fact is a battery-operated drink warmer that heats up to 90 degrees Celsius.

Both fourth-year mechanical engineering students, Alba and Gregory conceived of the drink warmer during a class exercise in 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes). Usually, the energy required to keep a drink hot exceeds the battery power capacity for a small portable device, but after conducting an online survey of 300 people, Alba and Gregory found there was a narrower niche to fill. They noted that a number of survey respondents, particularly millennials, tend to abandon takeout coffee when it loses heat, tossing the final third.

“We realized there isn’t a need to keep the drink indefinitely hot,” says Gregory. Making a device that can match the temperature of the coffee and keep it level for just 15 minutes longer, not hours at a time, she says, was a much more achievable task. And thus was born a take-out coffee accessory, which is rechargeable for daily use.

“This project is a way of testing our engineering skills,” says Alba. “Can we take something from the beginning of an idea to launch? Can we do that all by ourselves with the resources we have available to us?”

The Speed

Gregory and Alba successfully designed the prototype in January and intend to launch the first batch of 1,000 Coffee Cookies by early April, at the latest. The venture is a welcome break from a larger group startup venture they are also involved in, whose difficult and long-term goal is designing a miniature jet engine.

The four weeks of winter break — the prototyping phase — were intense. In dorm rooms and student maker spaces, Gregory and Alba sometimes worked 24 hours straight. “Without school you really don’t have to keep a schedule so you can just work to your limit and then crash,” says Gregory. Alba chimes in: “Our mantra became work nonstop.”

In a single day, they designed and 3-D-printed, in fast mode, a raw proof of concept. The first prototype lacked a circuit board, and parts of it were held together with hot glue. Next came a series of more sophisticated prototypes that fit a wide variety of takeout cups and included a circuit board, an injection-molded outer shell, component parts, and an official patent-pending status. Now they are waiting for 1,000 batteries to arrive from China, an order which cost them $2,000, and then they’ll assemble, and sell, their first batch of Coffee Cookies.

“A lot of startups nowadays are trying to revolutionize the world,” says Alba. “We really want to make something fun and get it to people fast.”

Gregory adds: “We like the idea of seeing if we can pull it off.”

The Partnership

The creative partnership between Gregory and Alba dates back to the summer of their sophomore year. As interns at JP Morgan in New York, both realized the corporate track was not for them. “We decided to stick to our guns and do something original. We came to MIT to make things. Our decision to follow through on that became the basis of our partnership,” says Alba.

Alba has wanted to be an engineer since childhood. As a boy in Arizona, he loved making things, including small robots built from salvaged objects. His projects evolved to 3-D printing and machining by high school, and during those years, MIT loomed large as the place for him.

Gregory, a Syracuse native, proved adept at math and science from an early age. As a first-year student at MIT, she was determined to “create a product that people don’t yet know they want” — a concept she absorbed during an Independent Activities Period course called Designing for People. Now she and Alba have landed on an invisible need and designed a product to meet it.

The Future

Early signs point to success. When Gregory and Alba pitched the Coffee Cookie to the board of the Sandbox Innovation Fund Program, the distinguished panel of entrepreneurs and innovators responded with enthusiasm. In their deliberations after the presentation, board members described the startup as scrappy and impressive — and decided to award them $10,000.

Soon Gregory and Alba will sell their first round of Coffee Cookies directly to students. “We’ll see if there is real potential,” says Gregory. “It would be great to one day see it on the shelves of Walmart and Target,” adds Alba, “but this is really about taking on a challenge and having fun.”

With conviction, Gregory adds: “If the Coffee Cookie fails, we’ll come up with other ideas and keep going.”

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