For married father of three Robert Stribling, a seemingly insignificant parenting slipup was the mother of invention. One ordinary evening five years ago, the Georgia entrepreneur was feeding his two-year-old daughter and getting her ready for bed when he turned his back for “just a second”—long enough for Emily to squeeze the Minute Maid juice box she was holding and squirt apple juice all over her just-changed-into pajamas. “I wondered why a Fortune 500 company would have such a faulty delivery system on one of its products,” says the mechanically-inclined Stribling, recalling the incident that inspired him to create a better juice box straw.
Stribling’s solution to the spillage problem was to add a liquid silicone rubber valve to the common straw—the duck-billed valve working in reverse so the straw stops the flow when the box or pouch is squeezed but opens when you purse your lips to it. With prototypes in hand he phoned longtime business partner, Jim Elliott, and relayed the concept, along with an eye-opening statistic: more than a hundred billion juice boxes are manufactured every year. After Elliott hung up the phone he poured himself a martini. “Then he called back and said, ‘You ought to name it The Last Straw,’” remembers Stribling, who went on to form The Last Straw LLC (TLS) with the intention of manufacturing and selling his invention to major juice companies.
But convincing a consumer products giant like Coca-Cola or Nestlé to adopt a new packaging innovation is more challenging and complicated than one might imagine. Extensive safety testing was TLS’s first priority, as “safety is paramount with any mouthable product for a child,” emphasizes Stribling, who notes that TLS valves are made of the same material as pacifiers. He hired third-party Ph.Ds to perform tension and compression tests (“to consider how hard the strongest, freakiest child might bite down or pull on the straw”), and to determine what kids might do with his straws, which look much the same as common straws, except for the valve. “They might stick it in their nose or ear … or stick it in a buddy’s nose or ear,” reminds Stribling, mindful of all the possibilities.
After passing all relevant safety and functionality tests, TLS faced a more daunting problem. That is, developing the manufacturing capability that would allow a juice company to incorporate the innovation into its packaging. Initially, TLS’s investors hoped to convince a so-called challenger brand like Apple & Eve or Tree Top or Atlanta-based White Hat to make a commitment, at which point they would purchase the automated high-speed equipment necessary to mass produce the new straws. But not a single brand was willing to commit without the manufacturing capacity already in place.
As a result, TLS’s investors decided to bite the bullet, and recently spent “several million dollars” on a manufacturing cell capable of producing 120-160 million straws per year. “We’re doing it under the premise that if we build it they will come,” states Stribling, who also owns a successful waste management company, Stribling Systems, which manufactures portable waste compactors.
The decision appears to be a good risk, as it’s reasonable to believe that a small independent brand would want to use TLS to differentiate itself from the competition. After all, countless moms & dads view juice boxes as a mess waiting to happen, which explains why TLS’s consumer research indicates that parents “would buy more juice boxes and serve them in more places and actually switch brands” if they included TLS, says Stribling.
But getting one of the world’s major juice box manufacturers on board might be a tough sell, especially since TLS would likely add a few pennies to the cost of each box or pouch. And a company that is already selling hundreds of millions of juice boxes a year doesn’t have much incentive to change.
In fact, the Minute Maids of the world would probably prefer that consumers don’t find out that TLS even exists. “They don’t want to highlight the fact that juice box spills are a problem,” asserts Stribling. “And they don’t want to talk about a solution, because then they would have to implement it. It’s going to take market pressure for them to change their business model and solve mom’s problems.”