You might think that caffeine fuels a lot of the innovative ideas that come out of Seattle’s tech community. But what does that say about what Andy Liu is drinking if his idea is a new way to decaffeinate beverages?
Liu is the founder of Decafino, makers of the Decaf Pouch, a tea bag-like product that can be dropped in a drink such as coffee and used to extract the caffeine. In a city like Seattle, home to Starbucks and numerous coffee startups, Liu’s idea is buzzworthy without the buzz-inducing element.
Decafino launched a Kickstarter Tuesday morning with a goal of raising $25,000 to boost its production capabilities and see if more people are attracted to the notion of decaffeinating at their own convenience.
“Most decaf coffee is being decaffeinated with chemicals and a lot of people don’t like that,” Liu said. “The chemicals strip away the caffeine, and they also strip away a lot of the flavor and aroma compounds.”
Liu said that lack of flavor, coupled with a lack of selection, is one of the main reasons decaf coffee is so frowned upon in the coffee industry. But despite the caffeinated and opinionated majority, Liu said 16 percent of coffee drinkers in the U.S. like their decaf. Giving them a chance to remove that addictive element in any cup of coffee — or tea, or soda, etc. — was the impetus for his idea.
A University of Washington chemical engineering grad, Liu started his project back in 2016 and went on to take second place in the Foster School of Business startup competition. He was inspired to keep going when he went through the UW’s business accelerator program and met Andy Kleitsch, an entrepreneur workshop leader at Foster and the co-founder and CEO of Atomo Coffee.
“As a chemical engineer, I was was thinking, ‘We need to do something about this,’” Liu said. “Because we’re in a very caffeinated city and there’s a lot of coffee drinkers here.”
RELATED: Tech ideas are brewing at these 5 coffee-crazed Seattle startups — and right in Seattle’s back yard
Liu, who previously spent a short time at Beta Hatch, the startup growing insects as animal feed, leads a Decafino team that includes two other chemical engineers and a PhD chemist.
The Decaf Pouch is a single-use product containing small beads that are made from natural plant extracts and natural minerals. The beads act as “coffee magnets,” which attract and bind to caffeine molecules through a process called adsorption. They don’t bind to flavor molecules, so that single origin coffee from your favorite specialty roaster will, according to Liu, maintain all of its lovely taste, even after the Decaf Pouch takes three minutes to suck the caffeine out of it.
The beads and the pouch are also biodegradable, fitting into Liu’s vision to be a simple and sustainable startup.
Each pouch, compatible with a 16-ounce cup of coffee or dropped in a pot that’s brewing, does pack a bit of a punch in price at $1.50 each. But Liu is betting on consumers who buy into convenience — like bottled water, without the plastic waste. Plus, if you’re already a decaf drinker, he said Decafino will greatly expand what you’re able to decaffeinate, eclipsing the stale, decaffeinated beans you’re used to.
While Decafino has already been beta testing by selling through a couple Seattle roasters, Kickstarter backers can get in on the action at various tiers that will include Decaf Pouches, Decafino stickers and coffee mugs. A 20-pack of pouches will go for $24, while 180 pouches will cost $189 on the crowdfunding site.
Production will be done in Seattle, from ingredients sourced in the U.S., and delivery is targeted for the spring of 2020.
Liu, who said he is personally trying to limit his own caffeine consumption, doesn’t normally drink coffee after 2 p.m. But he does with his creation.
“I drink coffee for the taste. I don’t drink it for the caffeine,” he said. “When I was younger I didn’t like to drink coffee, I thought it was bitter. But later, when I grew older, I was like, ‘Oh, this tastes good.’ It reminds me of life.”
A life beyond the “death before decaf” mantra.