College Startup Seeks to Revolutionize $1.5 Billion Peanut Butter Industry

Spreading peanut butter will soon be a revolutionary experience, thanks to a patent-pending invention that cures “peanut butter knuckles” once and for all.

Jar-with-a-Twist applies a device similar to the mechanism at the bottom of a tube of lipstick to a jar. Twisting the bottom of the jar pushes the product up for easy access—and no mess. While most noted for its application to the $1.5 billion peanut butter industry, manufacturers can see uses for the innovative container with cream cheese, salsa, mayonnaise, frosting, and skin care products.

The idea for the jar originated in 2012, when four undergraduates met at a “speed-dating” session in the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program at North Carolina State University.

“We were required to team up with fellow students, come up with an idea in a week, and build a business plan for a startup,” recalled Jar-with-a-Twist co-founded Sean Echevarria.

The founding team included Echevarria, Stephen Smith, Michael Bissette and Spencer Vaughn, all chemical engineering students.

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Jar~with~a~Twist Team from left to right: Spencer Vaughn, Stephen Smith, Michael Bissette, Sean Echevarria | Photo: Jar~with~a~Twist

The group met three times that week to brainstorm. Bissette’s idea about a “squeegee knife” for peanut butter extraction had the most potential, but the team asked, “Why the knife? Why don’t we innovate the jar?” With that, they built the first Jar-with-a-Twist prototype: a toilet plunger inside a PVC pipe. Operating it like a push-pop, the team found that the contraption cleanly pushed the product up for easy dipping with a kitchen knife.

In class, the quartet presented the idea to their mentor, Marshall Brain, a North Carolina State engineering alumnus and founder of HowStuffWorks.com. Brain, who was the director of Engineering Entrepreneurs Program, recommended filing for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There was just one problem.

“We did not have the $15,000 to pay the legal fees for the patent,” said Echevarria. “This put us in a pickle: we had to keep the idea secret but needed to raise money at the same time.”

The team joined the EEP’s “startup incubator” — Phase I Garage — and took advantage of the 3-D printing tools for further prototyping. To raise the patent money, the team entered business plan competitions across North Carolina. They swept the competitions, winning cash prizes ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. With funds in hand, the team filed for the patent on June 8, 2013.

Jar~with~a~Twist has multiple product applications.

With a protective “patent-pending” designation in hand, the founders contacted companies including Unilever, Smuckers and Skippy to sell their idea. But, to their dismay, Jar-with-a-Twist was met with lukewarm response.

“It was frustrating,” Echevarria said. “We didn’t understand why people weren’t interested.”

Then in a moment of inspiration that could only at two o’clock in the morning, the team posted their product video on social media website Reddit (the anonymous and curt, “front page of the Internet”), and called it a night.

They woke later that morning to find their video at the top of Reddit’s homepage—a page that receives 137 million unique visitors every month. Jar-with-a-Twist was going viral.

“I was in the mountains the day we posted on Reddit,” Bissette said, “And when I came back the next day, I had about 1,500 comments on our YouTube account. Not to mention all the Reddit replies and emails.”

Suddenly, the team was deluged with media requests. Two weeks after the Reddit post, “The Today Show” called . . . then “Huffington Post” . . . then “Fast Company” . . . then “Good Morning America.”

“Our situation reversed,” Echevarria said. “August was a month of people reaching out to us instead of us reaching out to them. We found ourselves flying all over the country, demonstrating the product.”

The group now faced some big decisions about how to build their business. They could create a packaging company or license the technology. The packaging company would require capital investment, a massive manufacturing operation, and factory construction. Or they could lease the right to manufacture Jar-with-a-Twist to established manufacturers.

The team chose the latter. Echevarria said, “A mentor told me something I’ll never forget: he said that any venture, if successful, will scale and when this happens, are you willing to dedicate five to seven focused years of your life to it?”

Echevarria did not want to devote the next five to seven years of his life to a jar. The team needed $100,000 to design the jar and to pay the legal fees to expedite their patent. They pitched to investors, but investors want to know if Jar-with-a-Twist had pre-orders or financial commitments from potential licensees. The young startup did not.

Just as the product appeared to be headed for failure before it could even launch, the team received an email from John Replogle, former CEO of Burt’s Bees,. He wanted to help.

In 2007, after Clorox acquired Burt’s Bees for nearly $1 billion, Replogle launched an underground venture fund in Raleigh called One Better Ventures to invest in fledgling companies around the Research Triangle. Before his time at Burt’s Bees, Repogle managed Unilever’s North American skin care division. Replogle wanted to meet with the Jar-with-a-Twist team with a proposal: he would leverage his contacts to procure license deals for the product in return for 10 percent of the revenues. This was the opportunity the four had been waiting for.

One Better Ventures took over the hard work of promoting the product to food and skin care manufacturers. The young men relaxed and waited for their patent to clear.

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The Latest Design of Jar~with~a~Twist

Echevarria and the others started pursuing other interests. Echevarria delved into user experience (UX) in New York; Smith joined a robotics and automation engineering company in the San Francisco Bay Area; Bissette joined an engineering firm in Raleigh; and Vaughn became a systems engineer at a firm in Apex, North Carolina.

Patents usually take three to five years to be approved. Jar-with-a Twist is only in year two. In the mean time, angel investment is sustaining the back and forth process with U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as well as covering the cost of significant redesigns.

The new model is designed with blow-molded clear plastic and injection-molded casing, creating a look more impressive than the original 3D-printed prototype currently displayed on the Jar-with-a-Twist website.

“Once the patent is registered, we are hoping for a bidding war for exclusive rights to the next generation container,” Echevarria told Opportunity Lives. Once the jar moves into industrial manufacturing, the company projects $7.5 million in annual revenues from licensing fees.

For now, the team members are following their passions and gaining experience. What started as a college project has opened doors the four students never imagined. “We have been able to talk to people like Tony Robbins, Daymond John, and others,” Echevarria said. “It has been quite the adventure.”

Dave Schools is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveSchools_.