Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price met with Matt Cremins, CEO of Voda, LLC. They discussed his experience with the University of Connecticut’s Innovation Quest program, the challenges of launching a startup, and the importance of building an entrepreneurial community in the Hartford area.

PRICE: Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?

CREMINS: No. I actually went to college to be an engineer. I had several internships at big Connecticut companies in Connecticut—Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and United Technologies Corporation. I liked those companies and enjoyed the products they were making, but I was always coming up with new ideas and new ways to do things. I felt I needed an outlet to be able to create something new and I didn’t find that when I was working for those larger companies.

Then I took a class at the University of Connecticut with Dr. Hadi Bozorgmanesh, who is Director of the UConn Entrepreneurship & Innovation Consortium. He introduced me to the idea of entrepreneurship. That’s when it really clicked for me. I realized I like engineering, but I wanted to create something new with it, kind of marry my engineering side with my entrepreneur side.

PRICE: So that’s when you got the entrepreneurial bug?

CREMINS: Exactly.

PRICE: That concept of questioning things and wanting to do things differently—a lot of entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to have touched on that. They seem to have that same sense of not fitting into a box.

CREMINS: Yes. I can’t say I’ve always wanted to own a business. I kind of just evolved into that through internships and school.

PRICE: Let’s talk about Voda. When did you launch the startup?

CREMINS: It started in Dr. Bozorgmanesh’s class as an idea. And then in the summer of 2013 I went into the Innovation Quest program at UConn. That’s when I took it from an idea to a company. I began to prototype the product, raise capital, file the business, and really start running the business.

PRICE: Tell us about the business concept.

CREMINS: Voda is all about water. And it’s about choice—choice of what you want to drink. In Dr. Bozorgmanesh’s class we were challenged to solve a global problem. I chose water. I started with water in the third world, but I don’t have a lot of personal experience with that. So I turned to water here, right around us, and the idea that people want the choice of the drink that suits them best.

And people want a healthy alternative to soda. A few years ago we were already seeing soda sales declining and water sales rising. Also, people always want the green alternative; they want to reduce plastic waste and help the environment. I saw those trends and felt there was an opportunity to create a new product that met those needs.

PRICE: So you developed the SmartWell. What is it about the product that makes it so unique?

CREMINS: What makes Voda unique is the choice we can offer. With the SmartWell, you can choose cold, sparkling, or hot water. It can do all types of flavors, sweetened or unsweetened, electrolytes, vitamins, you name it. And you can mix-and-match the options to create what you are looking for. That level of customization is our differentiating factor.

There are a lot of healthy products on the market, flavored waters and eco-friendly products, but nothing that brings this level of choice to your life.

PRICE: Where is Voda as a business right now and where do you see the company going in the next few years? 

CREMINS: Right now we’ve been placing SmartWells in locations throughout the state. We have inquiries and requests from other locations across the country.

We plan to keep expanding. I believe this is sort of the next evolution of the water marketplace. I think the water industry will evolve in the same way as the coffee industry did a decade ago, where you’ll see many new brands and many different types and flavors. Then there will be dispensers that can bring that choice and convenience to consumers. 

PRICE: Can we go back and talk a little more about Innovation Quest and your experience with that?

CREMINS: Sure. The process is an eight-week kind of boot camp. You spend the first part of the day with mentors who help craft your business strategy—your product development, your process, your marketing, your business model, your accounting. The mentors are great because they have different areas of subject expertise. For example, one week there may be lawyers who have focused in the startup field, another week the topic may be branding and marketing, so they will bring in someone who will talk about that.

The second half of the day is do-it-yourself. So you’ve heard how to do it, now you spend the time to start that process yourself. It’s a challenging process as you begin the journey of building your business.

PRICE: Most of the people who have been involved with Innovation Quest and received mentoring want to give back. Do you plan to mentor future startups? Is that something that’s important to you?

CREMINS: Yes. I actively give back. That’s one of the things that the Innovation Quest founders Keith Fox and Rich Dino ask of the past teams: Can you come back and mentor and be part of the family?

So I come back and mentor. I share my knowledge about product development, because my product is more engineering-focused. There’s hardware, there’s software, there are consumables, there’s shipping and delivering, there are materials that have to get selected, there’s actual manufacturing.

I help teams that need to build a hardware-type product and help them navigate their needs. Do they need design help? Do they need engineering help? Do they need help finding someone to make it? That’s where I can offer my mentorship.

PRICE: That’s one of the things I enjoy hearing about that program. I like how it’s so cyclical.

CREMINS: I agree. 

PRICE: So what would you say has been the most challenging thing for you starting out?

CREMINS: The challenge in the beginning when you’re a young company is building a strong team. A lot of people are looking for the salary, bonuses, and benefits, and that’s totally understandable. But that’s not really the environment of a startup in the beginning.

It’s hard to find people who are talented and willing to take the risk and sacrifice for the team. I’m fortunate that we found some great people, and we’re always looking to find more.

PRICE: How do you define success?

CREMINS: For me, success is a mindset. It’s a state of mind where you feel like you did all the work you can and put in your best effort to achieve what you want to achieve. Winning, growing your business, and making money—all of these things are important too, and obviously people want to do that. But, to accomplish all of those things you have to start with the effort and start with that state of mind that you want to succeed.

PRICE: Do you have advice for other startups?

CREMINS: Don’t be afraid to reach out for help in areas where you’re not as versed—and even areas where you are versed. I’ve learned that through my experiences. There are wonderful mentors out there and there are other startups with great stories.

As I said, I’m in engineer by trade, so I always reach out to mentors in other areas. That’s kind of how you create the community—when you reach out and get help and then give back and help others you build a community.

PRICE: In terms of community, have you been involved in many entrepreneurial or startup activities?

CREMINS: Yes—besides Innovation Quest, I’ve been attending the CTNext events. In 2014 we won a $10,000 CTNext Entrepreneur Innovation Award and $2,000 audience favorite award.

I also regularly go to reSET and reSET-related social events—I’m a big fan of what they are doing in Hartford. Murtha Cullina also hosted a trivia night recently. There were about a dozen startup companies and a bunch of mentors. It was a light atmosphere and it was fun to interact with all of the other companies outside of work. I think activities like that build the community too.

PRICE: What words would you use to define your life as an entrepreneur?

CREMINS: I’d say perseverance and journey. Those two words come to mind. It’s a journey. It’s an experience.

There are highs and lows. There are real high and real lows. A lot of times you feel alone. You learn a lot about yourself and your drive and your perseverance.

PRICE: It’s not for the meek. Like you said, you have to be willing to take risks. So, why Connecticut?

CREMINS: I’m actually from upstate New York. I went to school at UConn. I think I stayed because I met so many people here who believe that Connecticut can “do it.” And I believe that too. There are a lot of people at UConn and in Hartford who really care about making Connecticut better.

There’s something here that’s starting—I’ve seen it at the events at reSET and in Hartford. I’ve seen it at UConn, too. People want to make that innovation happen and I want to be a part of that. That’s why I’m here.