Princeton University is bringing together entrepreneurs and academics, innovators and investors, under one virtual roof for its inaugural Engage conference.
The innovation and entrepreneurship event includes more than 50 live sessions across three days, Wednesday through Friday, November 4 through 6. The conference is free but registration is required at princetonengage2020.eventbrite.com. Once registered attendees receive access to the conference portal, which allows participants to customize their conference agenda and submit questions in advance of sessions. For more information visit innovation.princeton.edu.
Among the highlights of the event is a keynote address by Ben Weiss, a Princeton resident and founder of the Bai antioxidant beverage brand. The talk takes place Thursday at 6 p.m.
Weiss, a Staten Island native and Boston University graduate, founded Bai from the basement office in his Princeton home in 2009. His inspiration came from a long-time love of and interest in coffee. He realized that the often discarded coffee fruit is a rich source of antioxidants — a valued ingredient in the health food industry — that could form the basis of a good-tasting, lightly caffeinated, and healthy alternative to sugary sodas.
While he got his start going door-to-door to Princeton retailers and asking them to stock his drink, the beverages proved popular, and the brand grew quickly. “Local merchants embraced the brand because I was one of them; they gave me an opportunity in their coolers to fight it out alongside other brands,” Weiss told U.S. 1 in a 2014 interview. “The success early on made me very confident this product had the potential to be a breakthrough brand.” By 2013 Bai was reporting $20 million in annual revenue.
In 2016 Bai was acquired by Dr Pepper Snapple for $1.7 billion in cash. Weiss was appointed “chief disruptive officer.” Eight months later he was fired — an outcome he explains in his new book, “Basementality,” which tells the story of Bai and explains the mentality he used to achieve his success.
Weiss has moved on to found Crook & Marker, a brand of spiked seltzers, lemonades, and other beverages that uses the tagline “disruptively different.” Much like Bai, which set out to be a tasty but healthy alternative to soda and fruit juice, Crook & Marker drinks put a healthy twist on adult beverages by using organic alcohol derived from ancient grains. The drinks contain no sugar, gluten, or GMOs.
The name Crook & Marker is a direct reference to how Weiss sees his role in the beverage industry: as a black sheep. (A “marker” is another term for a black sheep.)
In the introduction to “Basementality” Weiss explains his outlook. “I never wanted to just be one of the flock, selling long-established brands whose best days were behind them or coming up with derivative products that simply cluttered the marketplace. To me, those brands were the white sheep — the uninspired crowd,” he writes.
“My black sheep mentality allowed me to assemble a great team to battle the industry’s Big Three — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group — and build Bai into a truly disruptive force.”
But he also explains the mentality that allowed him to attain that reputation.
“When I started working on Bai toward the start of 2009, the US economy was still reeling from the Great Recession and I was coming off the failure of my latest venture, Boosta Shot, a natural energy ingredient for beverages. It was not the ideal time to start a new business from scratch. But after years of riding the ups and downs of life as an entrepreneur, I only knew one approach: move forward with no fear. So I picked myself up and went back down into the basement.
“In my windowless office, I was insulated from the noise of news reports about the weakened state of the American economy. I didn’t waste time licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself after Boosta Shot’s demise. I just got back to work, inspired to bring my newest idea to life.
“As an intuitive doer, I never had a playbook for how to win in business. I took action instinctively, starting in basements and cramped studio apartments as I sought to find my edge. Over the years, I developed the ability to view business through a bifocal lens — looking up to see what others can’t see far in the distance, while still focusing on what needs to get done right in front of you. In the earliest days of Bai in my basement, I committed to do the work necessary to get the business off the ground. As that work progressed and I started to see results, my hazy vision for Bai’s future came into focus and I put on my bifocals to ensure I kept our long-term goals in view while staying focused on the day-to-day battles necessary to get us there. I harnessed what I call my Basementality to kick off what would become the most successful venture of my life.
“My Basementality has guided me throughout my career. It’s not just about coming up with a great idea or enjoying those early moments of inspiration in the basement or wherever you start your quest. It’s about embracing a mindset that blends foresight, scrappiness, flexibility, and passion throughout your journey, empowering you to turn vision into reality and achieve success.
“The truth is you can only stay in the basement for so long, because to find true success you must outgrow it. You must charge bravely into the world, unafraid of failure. You must find others to run alongside you with shared purpose. You must fight your way out of the basement as you find the edge that will lead you to true success.
“But even after you leave the basement, it must always stay with you. You must seize every day with the same hunger and focus you had on Day One. You must never lose sight of your humble beginnings and the tireless work it takes to rise up. You must combine desire with discipline and big dreams with painstaking effort. That’s the essence of Basementality. That basement was not only the place where Bai was born, it was the inspiration for seven-plus years of blood, sweat, tears, and joy. It was the foundation for how I found my edge and became the black sheep of the beverage business.”
At the Engage conference, Weiss will be joined in conversation by a new crop of entrepreneurs trying to make a change in the food industry. The Crumpet Society, led by a trio of architecture graduate students, seeks to turn the British staple into a trendy commuter food (U.S. 1, August 5).
“Basementality” is available on Amazon.com.
Other sessions run the gamut.
At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday is a panel on the Dignity and Debt Network, a program led by Princeton sociology professor Frederick Wherry. The network does research on financial services for low and moderate-income households with three objectives, as stated on its website, www.dignityanddebt.org.
1) “Ask whether a business case can be made for using respect to improve customer experience and to reduce the cost of loan defaults.”
2) “To redesign existing financial services to increase the positive aspects of dignity and respect while also increasing the financial returns of these new designs.”
3) “Change the conversation about credit and debt among those measuring financial access and wellness, such as those writing legislation on credit access and debt, and those providing financial services.”
A session at 11 a.m. on Wednesday features Krik Macolini, president of Ithaca, New York-based business development consulting firm Intelispark, who discusses how startup companies connect with venture capital sources and other funding partners.
At 4:30 p.m. area start-ups get the chance to share their visions with a panel of judges who will hear a series of five-minute pitches in a showcase led by Startup Grind’s Princeton chapter.
Thursday includes a series of discussions on various aspects of data science in oncology and immunology with panelists from the Princeton faculty as well as area pharmaceutical firms Bristol-Myers Squibb, Janssen, and Genmab.
At noon on Thursday, Robert Prud’homme, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, gives a lecture as the inaugural winner of the Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation. Prud’homme’s invention, known as flash nanoprecipitation, is a technique in which drugs or other molecules are encapsulated in nanoparticles to improve the treatment and monitoring of certain diseases.
At 1 p.m. Thursday a pair of panel discussions address issues with hyperlocal and nationwide implications. One is a presentation on the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, led by neuroscience professor Sam Wang, which uses mathematical and legal arguments to seek fair representation through redistricting reform.
Happening simultaneously is a panel titled “Moving Forward: Innovating Urban Mobility.” The discussion will focus on land use and public access in the city of Newark, with an appearance by Newark planning officer Chris Watson. Also on the panel is Marshall Brown, an associate professor of architecture and director of the Princeton Urban Imagination Center (PUIC). Formerly known as the Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure, PUIC states its mission as follows:
“Dedicated to the production of exceptional urbanism, PUIC initiates projects that reimagine cities. We use our funding to support innovative teaching, intellectual experiences, and visionary endeavors. We aim to create new policies, plans, books, models, films, exhibitions, and manifestoes to reshape our reality.”
Also included in the Engage conference is “Celebrate Princeton Innovation,” a showcase of work by members of the Princeton faculty. The presentations are divided into two Thursday afternoon sessions, with projects from the life sciences at 3:30 p.m. and technology-focused projects at 5 p.m.
A few sessions cover environmental concerns. On Thursday at 2 p.m. is “Water Resilience: Protecting Water Systems from Evolving Stressors.” Panelists include professors from Princeton, Rutgers, Kean, Rowan, and NJIT as well as Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at NJ Future, and Jennifer Heymann of American Water.
On Friday at 11 a.m. is a panel on sea level rise featuring Princeton’s Michael Oppenheimer as well as Benjamin Strauss of Palmer Square-based Climate Central, Robert Kopp of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and others.
Also on Friday is a “fireside chat” at 1 p.m. on trends in life sciences funding featuring Dora Mitchell, an entrepreneurial life science leader, and David Tukey, a healthcare investor at Point72 Asset Management.
And in keeping with the times, a panel Friday at 2 p.m. covers a number of Princeton-funded research projects on topics related to COVID-19. Panelist Natalie Cox, an assistant professor of economics, is a co-author of a study on how the pandemic affected spending and saving across the U.S. income distribution which showed that declines in spending in March and April were due directly to the pandemic rather than the resulting disruptions in the labor market.
Kyle Jamieson, an associate professor of computer science, led work to develop a system for using cellphones to facilitate contact-tracing efforts.
And Clifford Brangwynne, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, is searching for molecules that block the interaction between the protein the virus uses to enter human cells and the receptors the protein binds to on those cells.