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? Practically a decade later, nonetheless, it’s clear that the preliminary pitch was merely the tip of the startup’s heating/cooling iceberg.

TechCrunch not too long ago 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 nicely over 3 million items [of the smart mug] at this level,” the manager tells TechCrunch. “We’re nearing 1,000,000 items a 12 months now. Once 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 primary prototype of the Ember mug was a Frankensteinian prototype involving a Zojirushi mug and a bunch of electronics. Picture Credit: Ember

Past the corporate’s better-known espresso receptacle, Ember has made a foray into the medical sector with the Ember Dice, 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 people who cooling is far more durable than heating. Heating is pretty simple in you can create a heater through the use of 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 distinct beast, nonetheless. “Folks don’t notice that you just’re not pumping chilly power right into a fridge — you’re really pulling warmth power out of the field.”


Ember’s inception could 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 right temperature of his favourite brew from the primary sip to the final. The trail 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 growth, Alexander navigated a maze of challenges that will take a look at his resolve and willpower.

Regardless of obstacles, Alexander remained steadfast. He assembled a staff 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 potential in client expertise. As Ember started to take form, Alexander and his staff poured numerous hours into analysis and growth, testing numerous supplies and applied sciences till they arrived at an answer that met their bar. The end result was a smooth, intuitive mug that would preserve a exact temperature for hours, managed by a easy smartphone app. Certainly, 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 sequence of fairness rounds, together with a $13 million Collection C and a $23 million Collection E.

Balancing kind and performance was an early problem acquainted to anybody within the {hardware} house. The mug wanted to successfully preserve temperature whereas additionally being visually interesting and comfy to carry. After in depth 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 permits customers to regulate it remotely.

Then there’s the problem of really bringing the product to market. In contrast to software program growth, {hardware} growth requires important upfront funding in supplies, tooling and manufacturing processes. As Alexander notes, these prices can shortly balloon, placing immense stress on startups to safe funding and generate income as quickly as potential.

Throughout the ocean

As soon as 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 crucial to long-term success, however securing patents and emblems could be time-consuming and costly. This generally is a daunting prospect for startups with restricted assets, requiring cautious strategizing and prioritization.

At one level, Ember discovered an unbelievable alternative, which turned out to be a substantial problem. Till this level, the mugs have been already on sale in Starbucks and in different high-profile retail shops. However then, one of many greatest 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… nevertheless it was price it,” Alexander remembers. “However Apple doesn’t love to do localized launches. In the event that they like your product, and also you’ve handed all their exams, they mainly come to you and say, Okay, we need to do that on a world scale.”

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

A Transportable Medication Cooler Prototype created in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic in 2018. Picture Credit: Ember

“I keep in mind going to my ops staff and saying, ‘Guys, Apple’s coming to us with a silver platter, which might flip us into a global 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 finally, we simply mentioned, ‘ what, you solely dwell as soon as, let’s do that,’ and it was probably the most excruciating 12 months of our lives. We went from North America to 27 nations with Apple.”

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

Going from scorching to chilly

Whereas Ember’s good mug has been a powerful success within the client market, the corporate’s ambitions prolong far past scorching drinks.

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

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

“I keep in mind pondering, ‘What can we do with our temperature-control expertise to assist save lives?’ I may see that we have been changing 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 government on our board. And he would invite us out to the Mayo Clinic. And we’d sit there in these convention rooms with docs and scientists. Our concept was to unearth how our temperature-control expertise may assist remedy ache factors in healthcare, whether or not it’s medication or transferring organs round or what-have-you.”

Alexander and his staff 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 corporate says it has greater than 200 granted patents as we speak, nearly all of them in temperature management, whether or not it’s semiconductor refrigeration applied sciences, heating applied sciences or the management methods to handle all of it.

The work gave rise to Ember Dice, a tool that guarantees to resolve one of the crucial urgent challenges within the medical area. Many drugs, significantly these utilized in most cancers therapy 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 Dice addresses this subject by offering a transportable, extremely correct, temperature-controlled atmosphere for storing and transporting delicate drugs. Leveraging the identical ethos utilized in its clever mugs, the Ember Dice maintains a exact temperature vary, guaranteeing that the medicines inside stay viable and efficient.

The Ember Dice dashboard permits shippers to see the medicines in transit in near-real-time, full with temperature readouts. Picture Credit: Ember

If correctly executed, the expertise might be a recreation changer. By enabling the protected and environment friendly distribution of temperature-sensitive drugs, the Ember Dice may assist to enhance entry to life-saving remedies in distant or underserved areas. It may additionally cut back the fee and complexity of vaccine distribution, a crucial consideration within the face of world well being crises just like the COVID-19 pandemic. After getting the expertise, tons of alternatives begin to floor. For instance, the U.S. Anti-Doping Company revealed that it makes use of Ember’s expertise forward of the 2024 Olympic staff trials.

Alexander notes that he sees the event of the Ember Dice as a pure evolution of Ember’s mission to make use of expertise to resolve 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 deal with its core competencies and goal markets. By making a devoted life sciences division, Ember can channel its assets and expertise towards creating 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 completely 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.

“A few 12 months and a half in the past, we really spun out Ember Life Sciences as a standalone entity,” Alexander says. The corporate initially stored the identical cap desk for each corporations however allowed the 2 entities to diverge from there. “It allowed us to boost capital from the healthcare business, and we’re fairly happy with a few of our fairness companions. Service — the world’s largest industrial refrigeration producer — is our investor. We even have another traders as nicely within the healthcare house. By spinning it out, we may entice life sciences and healthcare sort of fairness investments and board members, and so on., versus after 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, exhibiting 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 appears to be like to the longer term, he’s stuffed with pleasure and chance.

The Ember Dice can hold merchandise at 5degC (41F) for 72 hours. The corporate’s subsequent foray is cryogenic delivery, by which the temperature should keep at -150C (-238F) for prolonged durations.

“Damaging 150C isn’t 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 industrial product, however the Ember staff is psyched in regards to the progress it has made to this point.

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

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