Member Spotlight – July 3, 2014


Sean Grundy, CEO, Refresh

This week, Greentown Labs got a new addition to our kitchen – A Refresh Machine!

Refresh, a Greentown member company that has developed a new beverage vending machine that will change the bottled beverage industry by filtering and bottling at point of use. We caught up with Refresh CEO and co-founder Sean Grundy just before the big unveiling to find out what makes him tick.

Sean has a BA from Princeton and an MBA from MIT Sloan. He has always been committed to sustainable development and worked on conservation projects in the States and China with Rare prior to starting Refresh.

Rapid Fire

What I wanted to be when I grew up: Favorite music to listen to when working: Best restaurant in Somerville:
Gambit from the X-Men David Bowie Machu Picchu

If I were a type of renewable energy, I’d be:

Favorite activity outside of work: Suggested Addition to Greentown
Wave and solar combined Brazilian jiu-jitsu

A Greentown shuttle?

My Company

 Why do you do what you do?

When my team got together, we were really environmentally motivated. It is so upsetting, the amount of waste in the bottled water industry. I think about it every time I see a Poland Spring truck drive by. You can just save so much money and energy by filtering at the point of sale.

Now what keeps me motivated is the whole entrepreneurial process. The process of building a company is actually fun! Getting your first customer, your first employee… Now it’s almost the entity on its own that I want to see it succeed.

How did your company start?

So, going into my MBA (at MIT Sloan), I always knew that I wanted to start a company full time. I was looking for someone to work with and I found Eliza… or maybe she found me. She was actively looking for an MBA partner for a new venture. It feels like, typically, people are friends first before going into business together, but we met knowing that we wanted to work together.

At the time, I was still in school and she was working, so things didn’t move too quickly for the first year – I actually considered taking an investment banking offer instead!  Eliza was really patient with me… Initially, I thought I’d wait and see where the start-up was going, and accept a job offer if the start-up hadn’t hit major milestones yet. But by the time I had to decide, it had gotten basically nowhere because we had so little time to spend on it. No product. No prototype. No money.

Still, I decided to take a leap of faith, turn down my offer and commit to Refresh full-time.

What really gave us a push was winning at the Clean Tech Open Northeast. The CTO program really gave us the structure to push forward on testing, and we had a great mentor who is now one of our advisors. (The prize also came with support to get office space, which Refresh used to join Greentown Labs!)

Refresh's cofounders receiving their CTO NE prize winnings
Refresh’s cofounders Eliza and Sean (centre) with Alexandra Adler (l) and Alicia Barton (r), celebrating their Cleantech Open NorthEast win. (Picture courtesy of CTO NE)

What is top of mind right now in your company development?

We have our first batch of professionally manufactured machines coming out this fall. They’re smaller, sleeker, and have more flavors available than our pilot. Currently we’re taking pre-orders for the fall. There is a lot of interest from offices in the Boston Area – we’re replacing the water cooler with an awesome flavored/carbonated water machine that also lets you log in and customize your preferences!

We’re very focused right now on 100% reliability – our business model depends on our machines working very consistently. It’s a challenge to make sure that happens when you’re changing things around and making adjustments, but we have a great product team!

 What are your aspirations for the company?

I want to completely replace bottling plants with point-of-use dispensing systems.

One of the things that I’m personally really excited about is letting people customize their drinks at one location and instantly have access to the exact same thing somewhere else. It’s like your non-fat half-soy mocha at Starbucks… you can craft a drink that really is you. The more we build, the bigger the available network of machines is, and the more valuable that ability to access your custom drinks becomes.

My Work

What motivates you?

I really am pretty equally motivated by both environmental and business success. I want us to have an impact, but I also really want us to be competitive. I’ve worked at places that don’t have any environmental mission – I can still work hard, but I have a difficult time feeling motivated.

It’s really fun to see the team getting more results and having traction and seeing the idea get shaped by the initial pilots and customers. We have long term goals, but I’m pretty focused on continuing to hit the short-term milestones. In start-ups, you can get pretty obsessive.

 How do you work?

I spend a lot of time on the phone – I feel like a 1980s businessman! Most of my day is just phone calls and e-mails –  I spend a lot of time talking to actual/potential investors and customers. I feel like we get a lot of good feedback from them that is really improving our product.

It can be hard to transition from sales to product development work. I sometimes have a hard time not getting sales-y. For user testing, we’ve actually hired people to come in and lead the testing for us so they can be objective about user feedback, and not try to sell our product.

How does start-up life differ from your previous work or studies?

Before my MBA, I was working for a conservation organization called Rare in China. In conservation work, people aren’t in it for the money, so you find a lot of passionate people. Entrepreneurs are kind of like that. I work a lot more hours now, but I still feel emotionally engaged and personally committed. Entrepreneurship is definitely more intense though.

My Greentown Labs

What brought you to Greentown Labs?

I loved the old space. The new space is much nicer, and a better place to bring people for business meetings, but but the old place was like a Tim Burton house – I loved the old, dusty, creaking feeling.

 What do you enjoy about working here?

We’ve had someone take an hour just to help us prepare for a grant that they had won before, or to help us think through a design problem. Being here definitely helps you move faster. A lot of the really good contractors we’ve had for specific projects have come from recommendations at Greentown, because we all face similar issues. In fact Mike (Wing, a mechanical design engineer at Refresh) came to us through the Greentown network – Frank met him in a class at Artisan’s Asylum!

Refresh pilot machine
Refresh’s pilot  dispenser at Brooklyn Boulders Somerville.  (Picture courtesy of CTO NE)

We were also able to work closely with (Greentown Labs neighbor) Brooklyn Boulders for our pilot, which started in March. They were very excited to work with us – even committing to the pilot before we had finalized the design – and are understanding as we make changes to test different beverages and bottle designs. The gym staff are being super helpful and very knowledgeable – they’re almost our sales staff now!  They want more Greentown Labs teams to pilot technology there.

 What’s something that has surprised you about Greentown Labs?

We’ve met the Mayor of Somerville a couple of times here. He is super supportive!

My Advice

What advice would you give to a hardware entrepreneur

It’s legitimately very hard and time consuming.

I don’t feel like I’ve done enough yet to know if my advice is any good… One thing we’re trying to do is reverse engineer success – talk to the people and companies whose support we’re going to need in a year or two to scale the company quickly, and understand what we need to achieve in order for them to work with us.

 What would help someone thrive at Greentown Labs?

I do feel like it’s a very generous culture. It’s not the most outgoing place – I mean, I feel like I’m reasonably social, and I’m still meeting people for the first time after working in the same office for a year. But everyone is so generous with their time and advice.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t started your own business?

I would just unplug and go live in a cabin. No… I probably couldn’t do that, I’d need to be doing something. I would go try to be Elon Musk’s assistant.