Santa Cruz New Tech MeetUp: Verve Coffee in Tokyo, LifeAid on Inc 500
By Jondi Gumz, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Colby Barr slept on partner Ryan O’Donovan’s couch for a year when the bootstrapping duo set out to create one of the best coffee companies in the world.

The enterprise they founded, Verve Coffee Roasters, will be 10 years old in the fall.

How it has grown: Nearly 200 employees, four cafes in Santa Cruz, three in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco and another in Tokyo; wholesaling and supplying Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, eBay, PayPal, Yahoo and Pinterest; partnering with Manresa Bread of Los Gatos for baked goods; online sales where buyers can pick beans from a country, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, or a grower such as Juan Benitez of Honduras.

”On our bags, we say ‘made in Santa Cruz’ — we want to remain independent,” said Barr, who spoke Wednesday night to 240 people at Hotel Paradox at the Santa Cruz New Tech MeetUp showcasing lifestyle companies.

He recalled building Verve’s first cafe on 41st Avenue in Pleasure Point without a contractor, spending $160,000 and opening with less than $3,000 cash on hand.

Now that newly remodeled cafe has added Manresa biscuits and avocado toast to the menu.

“We hope we can improve the quality of life for the farmers and for the customers,” Barr said.

Aaron Hinde, 41, who started LifeAID Beverage Co. with fellow father and golfing buddy Orion Melehan, reported the 6-year-old startup made Inc’s fast-growing 500 last year and will be in the top 100 this year.

“We took on the conglomerates selling sugar water,” he said, explaining each LifeAID drink has a different set of ingredients from green tea and yerba mate to vitamin C, echinacea and zinc.

With eight new hires, LifeAID has 54 full-time employees in Santa Cruz and 50 part-time brand ambassadors in locations across the U.S.

At the start, the future was far from assured.

The food scientist hired to work on the formula had to be persuaded that sugar was not needed to create palatable drinks.

“How did you make them taste good?” came the question from the audience.

“Trial and a lot of error,” said Hinde, whose staff handed out free beverages.

Taylor West, 28, co-founder of Humble Sea Brewery in 2014 with two 20-something buddies, worked out of a carport in Ben Lomond.

They raised more than $1 million, including a $500,000 Small Business Administration loan from Heritage Bank of Commerce to fund their brewhouse and tap room seating 25, which opened on Swift Street on March 17.

They invested $130,000 in brewing experiments, testing 60 recipes in 2016, and putting on 30 events to find out what people like to drink.

It costs $3,000 to brew 300 gallons of beer that can be sold for $18,000, West said.

Now Humble Sea Brewery has 14 employees and an expensive piece of stainless steel brewing equipment not yet operational.

“Our equipment can’t run without power,” said West. “We’re waiting for a PG&E upgrade.”

John Felts, 31, co-founder of Cruz Foam, got a big round of applause talking about a new biodegradable material made from shrimp shells to shape a surfboard.

The next step is to raise $250,000 and make a full-scale prototype in Santa Cruz.

Caitlin Davies, 36, a UC Santa Cruz alum, is launching her startup, Mountain Sea Adventures, taking groups on moonlight hikes and stand-up paddling after working seven years as a guide. Trips range in cost from $55 to $250.

She plans to give back by taking young women out on adventures, with the first group from Digital Nest in Watsonville.

UC Santa Cruz student Vernon Cole gave a polished demonstration of a new app called Real Time to help college students meet students who share their interests.

Afterward, tech veteran David Dennis complimented him, adding, “We should talk.”

Verve’s story made an impression on Cameron Lowe, 20. He has a startup called Stickify Brand, which turns logos into decals.


Here are some tech opportunities from Wednesday’s Santa Cruz New Tech Meetup:

Conscious Living: Santa Cruz-based company offers a taste of conscious living 1 p.m. June 8 at Scotts Valley Hilton, 6001 La Madrona Drive, Scotts VAlley.

OutSite: Inspired by a visit to Santa Cruz, founder offers eight properties for co-living and co-working and plans to expand to 100 locations by 2020.

Small Business Week Food Slam: 4-6 p.m. May 6 at Food Lounge, Center Street, Santa Cruz.

Fields and drones: Demonstration 2-4:30 p.m. May 7 with Drone HIV, Transition Robotics, Aero Vironment and InspecTools

at Monterey Bay Academy, Watsonville, mixer at 5 p.m. at Elkhorn Slough Brewery, 65 Hangar Way, Watsonville

Startup Challenge: 24 finalists pitch at 4 p.m. May 12 at Cal State Monterey Bay.

Abbott Square: Six new restaurants, two bars, performances and a secret garden opens June 2.

Get hired: Santa Cruz New Tech MeetUp 6 p.m. June 7 with Amazon, ProductOps and three big companies whose names will be announced later are looking to fill 500 local jobs.

Accelerators: Santa Cruz New Tech MeetUp Aug. 2 with first companies to participate in the new Santa Cruz Accelerator.