Building a Successful Startup with UConn Support

"I was an engineering student, and that program gave me the confidence to know how to run a business," says Matt Cremins ʼ13 (ENG) '14 MS, who recently sold the beverage tech company that he began at UConn.

Matt Cremins ʼ13 (ENG), '14 MS.

Matt Cremins ʼ13 (ENG), '14 MS.

University of Connecticut alum Matt Cremins ʼ13 (ENG) ʼ14 MS is not at liberty to discuss the details of the sale of his company and its Smartwell beverage-dispenser technology. But it is fair to say it was life changing.

In less than six years, Cremins turned the company he began at UConn into a sought-after enterprise. He recently sold it to Elkay, an international manufacturing company known for water fountains and bottle filling stations commonly found in offices, schools, gyms, airports, and hotels.

“I think it is everyoneʼs dream to be successful and control their own destiny,” said Cremins, who created his company by tapping all the resources available to him at UConn.

Before Cremins sold his Smartwell beverage system, which allows users to customize still or sparkling water with all natural flavors from a custom dispensing machine, he developed it through the guidance of UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP), School of Business and School of Engineering.

Entrepreneurs in Every Major

When he was developing his business, Cremins and his company — formerly known as Voda Water — found a home base at the TIP facility at the Depot Campus. As a student company, he did not need to pay rent, but still received the support that other TIP companies get, including on his business plan, investor pitches, and connections with potential investors and business partners.

He is also among the first graduates of the School of Businessʼ Innovation Quest (iQ), which prepares participants to develop a marketable idea.

“As a student Matt was wide-eyed and motivated,’’ said entrepreneur Keith Fox ’80, who brought the iQ program to UConn. “He went on a journey that made him into a young, successful business man at just 28. We all got tremendous satisfaction out of watching him grow, become successful, and reach his dream.’’

“I think for our Innovation Quest program, the success that Matt and other entrepreneurs have had validates our work. We believe ideas can come from anywhere, from anyone in any major,’’ Fox said.

Cremins discussed his success with UConn Today.

Q: When did you realize the Smartwell was going to really take off?

A: When I came up with Smartwell, the flavored- and sparkling- water market was considered a niche business. It was growing significantly, but no one really expected it to capture more than a small percentage of the overall beverage market. But walking around the UConn campus in 2014, I saw that thatʼs what people were drinking. I knew that analysts had underestimated the demand for healthy beverages.

The Smartwell really resonated in business settings also. Companies were spending 75 cents or $1 each on canned beverages for their employee refrigerators, with some ringing up tabs of hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month. We were able to offer them a great tasting drink, save them money, avoid trips to Costco, and save the environment at the same time. We knew it would do well.

Q: Matt, you earned your bachelorʼs and masterʼs degrees in mechanical engineering at UConn in 2013 and 2014. Obviously you had technical knowledge, but how difficult was it to turn your ideas into a business?

A: It is incredible to see how the UConn entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown over the past five years. For me, the School of Businessʼ Innovation Quest program was the focal point of that. I was an engineering student, and that program gave me the confidence to know how to run a business. Thatʼs a gap that a lot of students have, and is the obstacle that is holding them back from their goals.

But I think the emotional ups-and-downs are the hardest part of entrepreneurship. I got through them by talking with mentors I trusted, including Professor Rich Dino and Keith Fox. Sometimes Iʼd call them and say, “The sky is falling” and theyʼd say, “Thatʼs OK.” They offered me the emotional support I needed, because as an entrepreneur, you lose it sometimes. Everything is an extreme—both the highs and the lows. I remember when I got my first customer and they said, “Thatʼs great. Now get 10 more!”

Q: Were there other people who were instrumental in helping you grow the idea into a thriving business?

 A: My key partner was Glen Boggini. Glen brought the knowledge of how to develop and manufacture flavors for our Smartwell dispenser. I was very lucky that Glen was only a few miles from UConn in Coventry, Connecticut. It gave me the opportunity to closely collaborate with him on new flavor development.

Q: What was your experience selling the company?

A: It was very exciting because after five years of hard work, this was the big moment. Elkay is a great company that values sustainability, which is a core value of the Smartwell, and the company has the resources to scale new products. In exchange, I brought an innovative product to their company. It was really a good fit. Currently Iʼm managing national sales for Smartwell. Itʼs amazing to be able to see my Smartwell product grow with all the resources Elkay has. Iʼm very fortunate to be working with a great team of talented people at Elkay.

Q: How did the sale come about?

A: In early 2017, I was introduced to Arti Lyde, the director of global product management at Elkay, and I was able to demo the Smartwell to her. She indicated that Elkay was interested in the Smartwell, and we had some high-level conversations about the possibility of working together. That October, Elkay offered to acquire the business. As conversations continued and I learned more about Elkay, it seemed like the right opportunity to work with a great company that shared our values.

Q: Everyone thinks being an entrepreneur is glamorous, but you have said you had to make many sacrifices. What were they?

A: In order to start the business, I turned down a leadership rotational engineering job at GE. It was a really great job that would have given me the ability to travel and learn a tremendous amount. My parents were freaking out, and I didnʼt blame them. For that first year, I lived very, very frugally. I tutored SAT math classes for high school students and taught a freshman entrepreneurship class at UConn to supplement my income. So, no, it wasnʼt easy financially.

Q: How does it feel to be an entrepreneurial success story?

A: It feels really great. But Iʼm equally excited to watch new companies come out of UConn and embark on their journey. I credit my companyʼs success to a combination of grit, passion, and the trusted advice of valuable mentors. Many times I wanted to quit and you have to persevere through it; thatʼs 90 percent of it. You need people who believe in you and what you are trying to accomplish.

Q: Whatʼs the best advice you have received?

A: You know that song by Chumbawamba—“I get knocked down, but I get up again…you are never gonna keep me down.” Thatʼs it!

Q: Do you think UConn is on the right path to develop more entrepreneurs?

A: Yes I do. My story is one of many testimonials that students at UConn have great ideas and are willing to work hard. It’s all about believing in the possibility of doing what you want and starting your own businesses, and finding the resources on campus to make it happen. The unique part of the Innovation Quest program is that you have a close-knit community backing you up. IQ isnʼt just a program, it’s a family that you can trust. Iʼve had support through every stage of my journey. And now Iʼm giving back by mentoring the students who are coming through the program.

I think there will be more and more success stories. The new students I have met believe in themselves and are very motivated. My story represents just one of many entrepreneurial wins for UConn and for the State of Connecticut…..and I know there are many more to come.

Today, Cremins is still committed to his invention, working to increase Smartwell sales at Elkay.