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Tech Startup: Vessel Works

These reusable cups keep waste out of landfills with a techie twist


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INITIAL LIGHTBULB: After a stint with New Hope Network in Boulder, Dagny Tucker moved east to teach sustainable business at Parsons School of Design in New York City, where she came up with the idea behind Vessel Works. “Every fifth person in New York City is walking down the street with a paper cup,” she laughs.

It follows that nearly 60 billion cups end up in U.S. landfills annually. Worldwide, that number is about 350 billion, and they’re largely non-recyclable products.

Observing a “seemingly innocuous disconnect” between mindset and market, Tucker sought to bridge that gap with a startup to allow coffee shops and their customers to swap their paper cup for a stainless steel loaner.

After proving the concept in the Big Apple, it became apparent a smaller market would be better to get started. “We kind of zeroed in on Boulder,” says Tucker, who returned to Colorado with her startup in 2017 for Vessel Works’ first citywide launch last fall.

IN A NUTSHELL: 

Vessel Works launched with two cafes on Boulder’s Pearl Street in late 2018 and had seven participants (and a waiting list) as of early this year. 

After registering online, client cafe customers get a recyclable stainless steel cup with a QR code on the bottom in lieu of a to-go paper cup; they can return it to a participating cafe or on-street kiosk in five days (or keep it for $15). Vessel Works now has about 6,000 cups in circulation and four return kiosks in Boulder, with more in the works. 

It’s not just about sustainability. It also makes good business sense. Paper cups typically cost 10 to 20 cents each, depending on volume and quality. “We match or beat the costs they have for paper cups,” Tucker says. Contracts are based on a per-pour subscription with no up-front investment.

“We’re scaling now, given the infrastructure demand,” Tucker says. “We’re looking at launching at corporate campuses as well. The average office worker goes through 500 paper cups a year.”

Trident Booksellers and Cafe was one of the first two establishments to implement Vessel Works when it launched in Boulder. General Manager Peter Jones says the cafe is already 95 percent zero-waste, “but we do give away a lot of single-use paper cups.” While the cups are compostable, some end up in the landfill, he says.

Trident now offers both Vessel Works cups and paper cups, which cost 12 to 14 cents per unit in bulk versus Vessel Works’ per-pour price of 10 cents. “We encourage people to sign up,” Jones says. “Every reaction we have had has been positive. It’s catching on. We’re getting close to a critical mass in the city of Boulder.”

THE MARKET: 

There are more than 30,000 specialty coffee shops in the U.S., but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as many corporations and municipalities are looking at banning paper cups.

Tucker is also eying the college and corporate markets. “We’re looking at launching at corporate campuses as well,” she says.

FINANCING: 

Vessel Works is an education-focused nonprofit that funded the startup of its sister for-profit, Vessel Revolution. “The for-profit buys the educational piece from the nonprofit,” Tucker says. She says the company will ultimately be looking for an investment in the $10 million to $20 million range to scale into markets such as Vancouver or San Francisco.

Dagny Tucker Executive Director

» WHERE: Boulder

» WEBSITE: vesselworks.org

» FOUNDED: 2016

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Eric Peterson

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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