Seven years ago, a bleary-eyed Anna Leone was on a trans-Atlantic flight when she was confronted by a caffeine crisis. She was slogging through research about molecular polymers and their use in biochemical engineering. Though it was standard in-flight reading for a biochemist like Leone, she needed a pick-me-up. She was trying to cut down on caffeine, so she ordered decaf coffee instead. Like almost one-quarter of U.S. coffee drinkers, she wanted to avoid the jitters but still needed something to get through the cravings.
The problem: the plane had run out of decaf, so she settled for regular—and went back to her work. Then came her "what if" moment. The subject of her reading material—those molecular polymers—can recognize certain molecules, "grab" them, and pull them out of a mixed substance. What if those very polymers, called MIPs, could pull caffeine out of regular coffee without affecting its taste or smell?
STIR FOR NO SHAKES. Fast-forward a few years. That idea has spawned a company, The DeCaf Co., a San Francisco startup that has proven that the technology can indeed be used to extract caffeine from coffee, tea, or sodas. It has come up with a wand-like instrument that bears a resemblance to a tongue depressor and lets the holder literally "stir" the caffeine out of a drink. One spin around the cup for half-caf, and another to take out more—up to 70%, according to the company's research. Caffeine-hungry polymers coat the stick, grabbing and pulling the hyped-up molecules out of the drink. Leone is hoping the innovation will soon be available in restaurants far and wide, right next to creamers and sugar bowls.
That may sound implausible—a bit like those fat-burning pills that melt away the pounds as you watch TV. But MIPs experts, who typically seek to apply the technology to more sober matters like disease discovery, say it's very possible. "Molecularly imprinted polymers have been used to selectively remove or concentrate specific compounds from complex mixtures," says Ken Shea, a professor of chemistry at University of California, Irvine. "MIPs are not a universal solution to all problems of this type, but there is no fundamental reason why this would not be successful for decaffeination."
It's not even an entirely new idea. Klaus Mosbach, founder of the Center for Molecular Imprinting in Lund, Sweden, is one of the creators of the technology and holds several patents on it. Several years ago, he did research for Unilever (UN) on using the technology to take the caffeine out of Lipton tea (Unilever owns Lipton). At that time, it took the form of a powder added to the mixture and was never marketed because it couldn't remove enough caffeine to make a difference.
COFFEE NATION. "In principle, it's possible, but I think it's a little bit too early, to be honest," Mosbach says. "But on the other hand, they may have developed some new trick." The DeCaf Co. has patented its technology and makes the prototype available for third-party testing. But it hasn't commissioned any independent labs to verify that it works.
If the technique does work, it opens a potentially huge market. And Mosbach's early work with Unilever indicates the technology would certainly interest food and beverage companies. When it comes to coffee, the U.S. is one addicted nation. Some 82% of Americans drink the stuff, and the numbers are ticking up nearly every year, according to the National Coffee Assn. More than half of those surveyed by the trade group drink coffee every day.
But while coffee consumption rises each year, demand for decaf is going down. A quarter of those surveyed drank decaf in 2004. The percentage slipped to 21% this year. Many say that's because current methods for decaffeinating coffee alter the taste. And at a time when Starbucks outlets (SBUX) dot every corner selling joe for $3 a pop, coffee taste is king.
GOODBYE, ORANGE POTS? Now, to get the caffeine out of coffee, beans are typically soaked in chemicals to dissolve the caffeine molecules. Then the beans are resoaked in decaffeinated water to reabsorb the flavor compounds, according to the Coffee Research Institute. "The chemical composition of decaffeinated coffee is altered, and therefore the flavor and aroma are changed," according to research by the group.
In theory, DeCaf Co.'s method lets you go unleaded without giving up flavor. There's also the convenience factor. Restaurants could toss out those ubiquitous orange-capped pots and just brew regular coffee. Need decaf? Just keep a few sticks in your purse or pocket in case a dinner party host or flight crew has only the hard stuff on hand.
But such a mass audience would be nearly impossible for the small DeCaf Co. to reach. It has a skeleton staff and has raised under $1 million in funding from wealthy individuals. DeCaf Co. Chief Executive Mel Stuckey came across Leone and the company in 2003 when he was head of CEOJumpstart, an organization that helps would-be entrepreneurs find funding and build businesses. He had a strict rule he wouldn't personally invest in companies discovered through his organization, but broke it for Leone. He soon took over as chief executive so she could focus on the science.
OTHER IDEAS BREWING. Stuckey is of the firm belief that smaller companies are more profitable and more innovative, so his plan is to license the technology to big food and beverage giants who, in turn, can package, market, and distribute a product. Meanwhile, DeCaf Co. will make royalties on the sales while developing other ways to exploit molecular imprinting—say, removing pollutants from gasoline or water. Leone has even thought about a wand that can be stirred in a cocktail at a bar—to guard against the date-rape drugs. "We've chosen not to go the [venture-capital] route because they've suggested we try to build a large company with this," he says. "The course we've chosen is one of licensing: It's high-revenue and low asset-intensive." Adds Leone, "We want to be a hothouse, spinning out creative ideas."
Deals with food and beverage giants would also help boost credibility for the process. Stuckey is insistent the company wouldn't go the cheesy "as seen on TV" route with late-night infomercials. Leone says the company is also in the process of getting its method verified by the Food & Drug Administration.
Although the company doesn't burn a lot of cash, putting its future in the hands of a much larger company is a risky all-or-nothing strategy. So far, Stuckey and Leone have bankrolled some focus groups and held very preliminary talks with food and beverage companies. They won't divulge names or details.
JAZZING THEM UP. Stuckey says companies have indicated they're likely to give them first to restaurants, which could then make them freely available with other condiments. Once a mass market develops, they could be sold in stores or even coffee shops. And the wands will likely be gussied up to look sexier than a tongue depressor. It's possible it might change colors—the way a pregnancy test does—as the caffeine is removed, to give skeptical coffee drinkers some indication it's working.
But Stuckey leaves such consumer-marketing tactics to the experts—for now, he's just hoping he can get some of them to bite—or rather, stir.