First Up -- Designed for Success

Founder and CEO Eric Barnes is betting that careful attention to design and aligning his business with water advocacy will bring success to start-up KOR Water.

In 2004, Eric Barnes was looking for a water bottle that didn't remind him of a cheap road race giveaway. "I didn't understand why, if you were trying to drink sustainably, have a reasonable bottle and you weren't going camping, you couldn't have something that looked nice," he recalls. Determined to "reimagine" the water bottle, he and partner Paul Shustak created KOR Water, headquartered in Fountain Valley, Calif.

In researching the market, says Barnes, he found it polarized between environmentalists who said disposable water bottles were evil and people should drink tap water out of a "canteen-looking device," and bottled water consumers who loved style and saw it as an affordable luxury. Barnes began looking for a way to provide consumers with a water bottle that fit their lifestyle but did so in a sustainable manner. He wanted a water bottle that consumers would find "thought-provoking" and beautiful, and not seen first and foremost as a green product. "A lot of times, sustainability is a tax on our consumption -- do with less to have a product that is more sustainable," he notes. "The real home run is a product that can provide 'better me, better world.'"

They also came to believe that it was important to showcase water itself by putting it in a clear container. So they rejected aluminum, stainless steel and a variety of plastics, particularly those containing bisphenol-A (BPA), a growing health concern. "We wanted to devise a material that almost looked like blown glass," he recalled. "We wanted to find a material that could pull that off and be durable and health safe."

Their design firm, RKS Design, put Barnes in touch with Eastman Chemical, which had developed a new copolyester called Tritan that contains no BPA and offers a glass-like clarity. "We wanted to develop a bottle that could show off what Tritan can do, and Tritan was the perfect material to do what we wanted to do," he says.

To manufacture the product, KOR chose Nypro, a private plastics manufacturer based in Clinton, Mass., with 49 plants around the world, including an ISO 14001-certified plant near KOR in Monterrey, Mexico, which had a lot of experience with injection molding. "Nypro helped out considerably in getting us to
market," says Barnes.

RKS Design, meanwhile, had developed a distinctive design for the KOR One that featured a hinged cap and handle rather than a screw-top and an innovative mouthpiece seal. Drawing on lessons from such companies as Apple, Method and Oakley, Barnes focused not just on the design of the product itself, but also the "design of the experience, thinking through how the consumer can engage with the brand, take ownership of the brand, feel better about themselves for owning the product." Barnes sought to develop a product that consumers wanted, not just needed. "The delta is that emotive experience that products deliver when they not only look great but perform great," he explains.

During product development, KOR's founders realized that the reusable water bottle could serve as a vehicle for raising awareness about the global issue of drinkable water. "Two and a half percent of the world's water is fresh water, only 1% of it is accessible. The issues that we see in the third world with clean, fresh water will hit this country before we know it -- some say in the next 30 years." The KOR One would provide a platform not only for the company to be "water advocates," but for its customers to share a "participatory experience" and educate others about the problem.

On its Web site, KOR Water asks visitors to join their "mission to celebrate and protect water." In April, KOR began a program to donate 1% of sales to four water-related charities. With expanded distribution and new products on the way, KOR Water is finding that doing good is helping it do well despite the recession.

Steve Minter is IW's chief editor. He is based in Cleveland.

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