The Vancouver native believes his company will have a profound impact on the world
The first vending machines were reportedly created around 1615 in England. Made of brass, they dispensed tobacco in exchange for coins. It’s not that far off from the contraptions we see today in schools and community centres. Sure, most have credit card slots and offer pop or candy, but the concept is generally the same.
Most people look at those things and see empty calories or a short-lived quench of thirst. Andy Chou saw an opportunity. Born in Taiwan, Chou moved to Burnaby with his family when he was six. He spent most of his formative years in Vancouver, graduating from Langara College after a brief stint at the University of Ottawa before that city proved too cold for him.
With a marketing degree in hand, Chou went to work for his family’s company, Chsam Chemicals, a supplier to the leather industry. But it wasn’t long before the 30-year-old embarked on his “entrepreneur dream.” The first step was Soapstand, a soap-dispensing machine that won recognition and awards for being eco-conscious.
But that venture was always a stepping stone to Drinkfill, the environment-friendly (users fill their own bottles), healthy (instead of pop, it carries drinks like kombucha and cold brew) and modern alternative to those decades-old vending machines you see on ferries and at hockey arenas.
The morning begins with a breakfast meeting with a potential investor at a De Dutch in downtown Vancouver. As it stands, Drinkfill’s only funding so far has been some government grants and cash out of Chou’s own pocket.
“Why I’m putting a lot of my money into it is because I believe it’s an important topic,” he says. “There’s a lot of money going into carbon reduction, clean energy, but almost nothing going into solving waste and plastic.”
But his pitch to investors comes with a financial angle, too: “I’m a pretty risk-averse person. Compared to something like AI, this is a sure bet. AI and all that stuff, you pour hundreds of millions into it and might not see anything. This will start generating money on its own.”
Chou arrives at Drinkfill’s Mount Pleasant office for a morning meeting with his team to set out goals for the day and week ahead. He oversees four full-time engineers and two part-time employees out of the company’s headquarters, which consist of two small conference rooms separated by an industrial workstation of sorts. Off to the side sits an abandoned Pepsi machine that Chou bought from a fire hall.
“We wanted to break it down and see what they were like inside. There was a bunch of Pepsi, but a lot of cash–helped us break even,” Chou says with a chuckle. “The interesting thing about these machines is that the experience never changes. These are hard-built; you can’t change the front, the buttons, anything. So if you want to change something, want to improve it, you have to pull the whole unit back.”
That’s in stark contrast to Drinkfill’s device, which has touch panels that are easily removable, depending on what the location or vendor wants to offer.
There are a lot of food options nearby for Chou and his team, and on this cloudy afternoon in late August he opts for Tacofino. Along with three tacos, he orders a ginger beer, noting that though it’s not a reality yet, he’d like to incorporate that beverage into Drinkfill’s offerings.
Courtesy of Andy Chou
Chou and two engineers head to Gastown’s Hive coworking space to check in on how their lone currently operating machine is doing. It’s stocked with cold brew coffee and kombucha–Chou won’t name suppliers at this point, but he’s pleased with the unit’s popularity. He thinks he’ll get one or two more running before the end of the year and then start to scale.
“If I put a nitro cold brew machine inside an office tower, people are going to use it,” Chou says. “Downtown lunchtime at Starbucks, the line is 20 minutes long. All we need is a few people to use it, and the machine turns a profit. There’s no people to manage and no labour.”
Besides talking with a large Vancouver development company about populating office towers and malls with his dispensers, he’s looking at opportunities in Japan, Toronto and with the Montreal airport. He thinks he’ll have 160 units operating by the end of 2020.
The team spends the rest of the day preparing for a transportation conference. This is Chou’s holy grail. If he can get TransLink on board, he believes, Drinkfill will really take off. That, of course, will be subject to provincial authority and could take years to secure, if at all.
“That’ll be the biggest one. With this system, TransLink has the possibility of playing hero in this city,” says Chou in all seriousness. “They’ll be able to help save a lot of people a lot of money, help local industry and help our landfill issue. Logistically it’ll be difficult, but it’ll depend on how much they want it and how much we want it.”
The latter shouldn’t be a problem.