Ember’s journey from scorching espresso to remedy transport

Ember’s first Indiegogo marketing campaign drew sideways glances when it launched in 2015. Would anybody really purchase a $129 heated espresso mug? Nearly a decade later, nevertheless, it’s clear that the preliminary pitch was merely the tip of the startup’s heating/cooling iceberg.

TechCrunch lately sat down with Clay Alexander, the agency’s founder and chairman, to take a deep dive into Ember’s historical past — and catch a glimpse of the place issues are headed.

“We’re effectively over 3 million models [of the smart mug] at this level,” the manager tells TechCrunch. “We’re nearing 1,000,000 models a yr now. When I first created this expertise, I had so many individuals in my life say, ‘oh Clay, you’ll by no means promote a $100 digital espresso mug. You’ve misplaced your thoughts.’ As a founder, you simply must have perseverance, and it’s a must to have this intestine intuition that overpowers logic.”

The first prototype of the Ember mug was a frankensteinian prototype involving a Zojirushi mug and a bunch of electronics. Image credit: Ember

The first prototype of the Ember mug was a Frankensteinian prototype involving a Zojirushi mug and a bunch of electronics. Image Credits: Ember

Beyond the corporate’s better-known espresso receptacle, Ember has made a foray into the medical sector with the Ember Cube, a delivery field for issues that want to remain temperature-controlled — primarily medicines. It additionally makes heated child bottles now, too.

“I at all times say to those who cooling is far more durable than heating. Heating is pretty easy in that you may create a heater by utilizing a resistive heating ingredient or a resistive heating wire. I imply, heck, you possibly can simply put electrical energy and any wire. It’s gonna heat up, proper?,” Alexander notes. Cooling is a special beast, nevertheless. “People don’t understand that you simply’re not pumping chilly power right into a fridge — you’re really pulling warmth power out of the field.”


Ember’s inception might be traced again to a relatable second of frustration: a lukewarm cup of espresso. Alexander, a self-proclaimed espresso aficionado, longed for an answer to take care of the proper temperature of his favourite brew from the primary sip to the final. The path to bringing Ember to life was difficult. As a {hardware} startup, Ember confronted distinctive obstacles that usually deter entrepreneurs from venturing into this house. From the excessive product growth and manufacturing prices to the complicated net of IP safety and worldwide enlargement, Alexander navigated a maze of challenges that will take a look at his resolve and willpower.

Despite obstacles, Alexander remained steadfast. He assembled a workforce of engineers, designers and entrepreneurs who shared his ardour for making a product that will improve the coffee-drinking expertise and push the boundaries of what was attainable in client expertise. As Ember started to take form, Alexander and his workforce poured numerous hours into analysis and growth, testing varied supplies and applied sciences till they arrived at an answer that met their bar. The outcome was a smooth, intuitive mug that would keep a exact temperature for hours, managed by a easy smartphone app. Indeed, 2,000 backers rallied to the concept on Indiegogo, giving the corporate a $360,000 money injection and its first trace at market validation. Not lengthy after, the corporate raised a collection of fairness rounds, together with a $13 million Series C and a $23 million Series E.

Balancing type and performance was an early problem acquainted to anybody within the {hardware} house. The mug wanted to successfully keep temperature whereas additionally being visually interesting and cozy to carry. After intensive testing and refinement, Ember ultimately settled on a smooth, minimalist design that seamlessly built-in the heating expertise into the mug’s partitions. The mug additionally options wi-fi charging, customizable temperature settings and a smartphone app that enables customers to manage it remotely.

Then there’s the problem of truly bringing the product to market. Unlike software program growth, {hardware} growth requires vital upfront funding in supplies, tooling and manufacturing processes. As Alexander notes, these prices can rapidly balloon, placing immense strain on startups to safe funding and generate income as quickly as attainable.

Across the ocean

Once a product is developed, {hardware} startups should navigate the complicated world of mental property safety. In a fiercely aggressive market, safeguarding one’s improvements is vital to long-term success, however securing patents and emblems might be time-consuming and costly. This could be a daunting prospect for startups with restricted sources, requiring cautious strategizing and prioritization.

At one level, Ember discovered an unimaginable alternative, which turned out to be a substantial problem. Until this level, the mugs have been already on sale in Starbucks and in different high-profile retail shops. But then, one of many largest and most influential retailers on this planet got here knocking.

“We have been increasing not simply within the U.S. It took us about two years to get into the Apple retailer — the quantity of testing they put your product by is wild — and the variety of instances I flew as much as Cupertino… but it surely was price it,” Alexander remembers. “But Apple doesn’t love to do localized launches. If they like your product, and also you’ve handed all their checks, they mainly come to you and say, Okay, we wish to do that on a world scale.”

At the time, Ember was solely delivery to North America, however when Apple got here knocking and mentioned it needed to start out promoting its product in 27 international locations, they didn’t ask whether or not to leap, however moderately how excessive to hop.

A Portable Medicine Cooler Prototype created in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic in 2018. Image Credits: Ember

“I bear in mind going to my ops workforce and saying, ‘Guys, Apple’s coming to us with a silver platter, which might flip us into a world model in a single day. Are we going to do that?’ And it was a few weeks of whiteboarding and blind panic,” Alexander laughs. “And in the end, we simply mentioned, ‘You know what, you solely dwell as soon as, let’s do that,’ and it was essentially the most excruciating yr of our lives. We went from North America to 27 international locations with Apple.”

As Ember started to develop internationally, Alexander and his workforce encountered challenges round navigating the regulatory landscapes of various international locations, securing dependable manufacturing companions and adapting to native market circumstances. Each problem required a deep understanding of the worldwide {hardware} ecosystem. Alexander credit Ember’s success on this space to the power of his workforce and their willingness to study and adapt on the fly.

Going from scorching to chilly

While Ember’s sensible mug has been a convincing success within the client market, the corporate’s ambitions lengthen far past scorching drinks.

A prototype of a cylindrical medication cooler was developed in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic. This idea was from 2019. Image Credits: Ember

I like promoting espresso cups, don’t get me incorrect, however with the ability to save lives has been one thing that every one of us can rally behind. Clay Alexander

“I bear in mind considering, ‘What can we do with our temperature-control expertise to assist save lives?’ I may see that we have been turning into very profitable in client,” Alexander explains. “I had Wyatt Decker, the CEO of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, on my board of administrators. It was actually cool to have a big-time healthcare govt on our board. And he would invite us out to the Mayo Clinic. And we might sit there in these convention rooms with medical doctors and scientists. Our thought was to unearth how our temperature-control expertise may assist clear up ache factors in healthcare, whether or not it’s medication or shifting organs round or what-have-you.”

Alexander and his workforce retreated again to the lab to start out tackling the challenges it had found, placing its dozens and dozens of patents to good use. The firm says it has greater than 200 granted patents immediately, virtually all of them in temperature management, whether or not it’s semiconductor refrigeration applied sciences, heating applied sciences or the management techniques to handle all of it.

The work gave rise to Ember Cube, a tool that guarantees to unravel one of the vital urgent challenges within the medical area. Many drugs, significantly these utilized in most cancers remedy and vaccine distribution, require exact temperature management to take care of efficacy. Even slight deviations from the optimum temperature vary can render these drugs ineffective or dangerous. The Ember Cube addresses this situation by offering a transportable, extremely correct, temperature-controlled setting for storing and transporting delicate drugs. Leveraging the identical ethos utilized in its clever mugs, the Ember Cube maintains a exact temperature vary, guaranteeing that the medicines inside stay viable and efficient.

The Ember Cube dashboard permits shippers to see the medicines in transit in near-real-time, full with temperature readouts. Image Credits: Ember

If correctly executed, the expertise may very well be a recreation changer. By enabling the protected and environment friendly distribution of temperature-sensitive drugs, the Ember Cube may assist to enhance entry to life-saving therapies in distant or underserved areas. It may additionally scale back the associated fee and complexity of vaccine distribution, a vital consideration within the face of worldwide well being crises just like the COVID-19 pandemic. Once you’ve gotten the expertise, tons of alternatives begin to floor. For instance, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency revealed that it makes use of Ember’s expertise forward of the 2024 Olympic workforce trials.

Alexander notes that he sees the event of the Ember Cube as a pure evolution of Ember’s mission to make use of expertise to unravel real-world issues. By making use of its experience in temperature management to the medical area, Ember is poised to make a significant distinction within the lives of sufferers worldwide.

Spinning out

The choice to separate Ember into two distinct divisions — client and life sciences — was a strategic transfer designed to permit every arm of the corporate to give attention to its core competencies and goal markets. By making a devoted life sciences division, Ember can channel its sources and expertise towards growing new functions for its expertise within the medical area, from bettering the storage and transportation of vaccines to enabling extra exact temperature management in laboratory settings.

The break up permits the corporate to serve totally different buyer populations — each within the product sense and within the investor sense — and the corporate employed a former Dyson exec (Jim Rowan) because the CEO of its client division.

“About a yr and a half in the past, we really spun out Ember Life Sciences as a standalone entity,” Alexander says. The firm initially saved the identical cap desk for each firms however allowed the 2 entities to diverge from there. “It allowed us to boost capital from the healthcare business, and we’re fairly pleased with a few of our fairness companions. Carrier — the world’s largest business refrigeration producer — is our investor. We even have another buyers as effectively within the healthcare house. By spinning it out, we may entice life sciences and healthcare sort of fairness investments and board members, and so forth., versus once we had all of them mixed.”

From cool to very chilly certainly

“We’re really attempting to maneuver into the cell and gene remedy house with cryogenic delivery,” Alexander teases, displaying me a photograph of the prototype gadget. He then swears me to secrecy, saying I can’t share the image I’ve seen.

As Alexander seems to the long run, he’s stuffed with pleasure and risk.

The Ember Cube can preserve merchandise at 5degC (41F) for 72 hours. The firm’s subsequent foray is cryogenic delivery, wherein the temperature should keep at -150C (-238F) for prolonged intervals.

“Negative 150C is not any joke. It’s a hell of a factor. We use liquid nitrogen, and the delivery field has a sponge-like materials, so the nitrogen will get absorbed into the partitions. If it will get tipped over, nothing comes out, it’s a dry shipper,” Alexander says. “It’s a significant engineering problem. You must do it in a vacuum, and it’s all very complicated engineering.”

Alexander says the cryogenic shipper is round 18 months from being out there as a business product, however the Ember workforce is psyched in regards to the progress it has made up to now.

“We’ve run thermal chamber testing and have been in a position to preserve the payload beneath unfavourable 150 Celsius for 10 days,” Alexander explains. “The target market for that is cell and gene remedy — tremendous high-tech medication that’s actually curing most cancers and saving lives. Talk a few feel-good factor as a model, proper? I like promoting espresso cups, don’t get me incorrect, however with the ability to save lives has been one thing that every one of us can rally behind.”

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