A healthy curiosity and a truck with no cup holders has led a Louisville man to build what may be the proverbial “better mousetrap.”
Phil Abbott has invented a lid-less cup that he says doesn’t leak or spill, and has no plastic top to pop off just when it’s the most inconvenient.
Abbott, 57, came up with a paper cup design he calls “East Tennessee origami.”
“It’s an integral cup lid,” he said. “That’s the technical name.” The company name pays tribute to Abbott’s Irish roots. “We are Shamrock Cups, LLC.”
Born in Detroit, Abbott grew up in and attended the University Tennessee. He is married to Kimberly Abbott and has a daughter, Kacie, 18.
Abbott said he’s always been interested in patents. “I have several in various fields -- from baby products to an air-bearing dental drill to industrial ceramics to painting tools to a cable TV piracy theft-proof device,” he said.
Abbott said his curiosity has always been strong, as has his interest in research.
“I sold industrial ceramics as a broker for Kyocera out of Vancouver to an English company in 1999. Our research and development program as fascinating. I was very interested in research and was curious about everything,” he said.
Abbott said he has had a variety careers. “I got into contracting and painting in Knoxville and did that many years; moved here in the 1980s and walked into Anderson Lumber and hooked up with them doing custom fiberglass entry doors,” he said.
A 1987 Toyota truck he bought sparked his interest in developing a better mousetrap -- cup style. The truck, which he loved, didn’t have any cup holders.
“This actually helped lead to the invention of the lidless cup. I kept spilling coffee and Cokes in my truck. That’s probably one of the reasons I started looking at this,” he said.
He started by folding. “I started folding Dixie cups by the bags. It took a few months to figure it out. It actually developed as I went from one design to the next,” he said.
If Abbott was on a job, he would sit on the tailgate of his truck at lunch and fold cups.
“The eureka moment was when I looked down and realized I had done something. I didn’t know what origami was but someone said, ‘You just did origami.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ I had to go look up the definition.
“What you have here is an East Tennessee version of origami. It’s more function over form. This is more ergonomic, a more Americanized version of the simple folds of normal origami art - which is an ancient art.”
In the fall of 2004 he started thinking seriously about his invention and about getting it to a manufacturer. That proved to be a Herculean undertaking.
“It took me two years to reach the first major manufacturer. The big brand manufacturers are difficult to access, and it took years. Until recently, I tried to do this with no investors,” he said. “Only in the last year was I able to convince people. It’s a long process, with a lot of doors slamming in your face.”
Abbott said he’s spent several years bouncing back from his idea being rejected but he’s learned not to be discouraged and had this advice for fellow inventors. “Don’t be discouraged, always follow every lead and don’t stop,” he said.
The momentum for Abbott’s project began to build when Bruce Russell, a former customer of Abbott’s and a retired Blount County businessman took an interest in his invention.
“He kept an eye on me for a long time. Finally in January or February, he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We formed a company. Now the last six months have been working everyday, all day, all night for me,” Abbott said.
Abbott said Russell had confidence in him and took a leap of faith by investing.
“It gave me the resources I needed to spend on engineering and patent applications and travel. It just gave me the fuel to go forward. In so many cases it’s difficult to get money on a new idea.”
Abbott said the engineers he hired since forming the company, Aptus, Inc., of Maryville, helped further refine the no-spill, lid-less cup by honing the geometry of the invention.
“That simple fold took many hours of engineering to get right for structure, form and integrity,” he said. “I found out engineers are invaluable.”
Shamrock cups will also have a polylactic acid polymer coating, which is biodegradable. “There’s a big push for environmentally-friendly products. Our company is keyed on getting rid of plastics. We’ve done that, and the trade off is we added more paper, but we’re eco-friendly, which is attractive to people in food service. Everyone wants to go green. This answers the question about having to have a plastic lid.”
A graphics designer named Dana Rimback of Maryville was also essential to the project, as was graphic artist and layout designer Heidi Hall of Atlanta, Abbott said.
“I have great designers and engineers and supporters. I have a great team of people around me, which I didn’t have for many years. It’s a great asset. I quit my day job about six months ago,” he said. “I’m was working too hard. I couldn’t do both the project and my day job.”
Abbott said while the cup design looks simple it took thousands of dollars of research to get all the factors needed. “Drinking experience, strength, ease of closure, consumer friendly in designing -- we tried to integrate all that into one thing through research and engineering,” he said.
Abbott said that in drop-testing at Aptus engineering, they documented the burst resistance of the cup when full of liquid. “We exceeded our expectations and found the closure to be stronger than we had anticipated. The test results show the consumer will have a very secure lid for their cups,” he said. “We especially want to focus on a target market for ‘kiddie’ cups. We feel this will launch our project more rapidly.”
To honor his family, Abbott put an image of his father and great-grandfather on one of the sample cups. His father, Gordon Abbott of Maryville, is 4 years old and his great-grandfather, Joseph Josiah “Banty” Gregory, is sitting beside him. “Joseph Josiah “Banty” Gregory, was a farmer, fiddler and moon shiner, and a turnkey jailer part-time,” Abbott said.
So, how’s it going, now that the better mousetrap is built.
“We haven’t sold one cup,” Abbott said. The steps are long and tedious, but now that the design has evolved several times, manufacturers who wouldn’t talk with him before are beginning to show some interest.
“I did a lot of research. I talked to people all around the world and used that information to go back to the companies with a more structured plan and a more refined concept. As a result, we were able to form a tentative relationship with several manufacturers and food service companies,” he said. “We presently have preproduction samples that will be in focused groups in various locations around the country. There are some key cup conversion manufacturers and some national and international food service companies reviewing the product now.”
Shamrock Cups went to the Olympics recently when Abbott sent samples to Beijing to be reviewed by key senior management officials from several manufacturers, he said.
“We were fortunate to have people who were attending the Olympics review our cup concept,” said Abbott.
And, yes, he has met with the “biggie.”
“I met with Starbucks in New York City and got to meet their global packaging buyer,” Abbott said. “They gave me permission to do the logo (on a prototype), and they shipped them to Seattle. They’re up for review for hot cups. They’re deliberating. There’s no deal.”
Chick-fil-A also is consumer testing the product currently, he said.
Abbott said currently the lid-less cup is at the point of validation. “We haven’t sold one cup. Right now we are focus group testing, getting consumer feedback and in-house company testing to validate the concept,” he said.
This step will probably take a couple of months, Abbott said. “After that, if things come out positively, and we hope they will, then the next step would be to scale it up and work with major cup makers in retail food service.”
And then, he hopes, there will be something else to fold -- something to put in their pockets.