The epiphany moment for Samuel Ian Rosen came when he found himself at an airport shelling out $5 for a bottle of Evian water.
“Nobody up till now has built a Google Map for (drinking) water,” Rosen, a serial entrepreneur, said in an interview. “Finding water is inconvenient. When I go to Google Map and type ‘water fountain,’ there is nothing. We solve it by building Google Map for water….We are a search engine. We tell you where the water is.”
Beginning Tuesday, consumers in cities from New York and Los Angeles to Amsterdam and New Delhi will be able to download an app called Tap on their mobile phones that will help them find the closest free public drinking fountains and water bottle refill stations at places like airports. They can also refill their bottles at over 34,000 cafes, restaurants and other businesses — from Umami Burger and Shake Shack to Sweetgreen and Barry’s Bootcamp — that have signed on globally in the Tap Authorized Refill Network. (Tap said that number is rapidly growing.)
The app allows users to filter their search by such criteria as whether the water is unfiltered, sparkling or flavored. There’s also what Tap described as “water ATMs” where people will be able to buy unpackaged water to refill their existing bottles.
“We didn’t have to wait to convince anyone to sign up,” Rosen, who previously founded on-demand storage company MakeSpace, told me. “It’s for the same right reasons what corporations are doing with sustainability. … We have brand ambassadors as young as 10 signing up local businesses. This is a movement.”
The introduction of the app comes the same month that the UN Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change warned of dire consequences if greater efforts are not made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. A separate scientific study also recently warned of a doomsday scenario for beer lovers, with extreme climate change dramatically reducing the yield of barley crops.
Worldwide, one million plastic water bottles are reportedly bought every minute, yet less than 10% of the plastic has been recycled properly — which could mean that the amount of single-use plastic that ends up in the ocean outweighs fish by 2050, Tap said, citing an Ellen MacArthur Foundation study and other reports.
In total, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80 billion to $120 billion each year, is lost to the economy after a short first use, the Ellen MacArthur study said, adding that only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling.
“We believe in initiatives that help both grow the business as well as further efforts in effecting a positive change for a healthier planet,” Sebastien Silvestri, COO of Umami Burger parent sbe, said in an email, adding that the burger chain will offer water fill-ups at its company-owned locations for free. “If that translates into more foot traffic leading to sales to someone who may not have known about (Umami) before, that’s great. However, (our) No. 1 goal is to help better the planet.”
Businesses like Umami are increasingly embracing the trend of sustainably minded practices that’s sweeping across different restaurant, CPG and retail sectors, with today’s environmentally conscious consumers having shown they will spend money on brands that line up with their personal beliefs. Umami, for instance, is one of the burger chains that have been featuring Impossible Foods’ plant-based meat, another sustainability-oriented movement.
“That’s why we’ve received an overwhelming number of responses,” Rosen said. “The best advertising is free water. It builds good will.”
The Tap app is also worth watching because its very idea is about curbing plastic water bottle purchases, which could hurt sales of water bottles — a bright spot at soft drink giants like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the parent companies of Dasani and Aquafina water.
As for the growth prospects of Tap, Rosen, 33, makes it clear that Tap is “a for-profit entity that’s sustainable” and counts revenue opportunities including product placement and affiliated marketing alongside advertising. After raising $60 million for MakeSpace from VC funds and investors including Ashton Kutcher and Carmelo Anthony, Rosen said he’s raised an undisclosed amount for Tap and will raise more.
“This business model is about a search engine for finding water,” Rosen, who is also an angel investor behind some upstart businesses, told me. “We are a brand in movement. A water bottle can be your fashion accessory of 2019.”
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