GLOUCESTER — Matthew Roberts was a junior at Bentley University when he started freezing coffee in ice-cube trays. He needed his daily jolt, but mornings were a rush to get to class. Dropping those cubes in a cup, and letting them dissolve throughout the day, gave him his fix. But it also sparked an idea that could one day shake up the coffee scene.
Cometeer, a coffee-tech company Roberts cofounded in 2015, has taken his college workaround and transformed it into a new approach to coffee brewing. Working in a renovated seafood factory near the Gloucester shore, Roberts has recruited scientists from MIT, Apple, and Tesla to refine the company’s innovation: a flash-frozen coffee puck that yields a perfect cup, no experience or equipment required.
At its heart, Cometeer brews high-quality coffee, similar to what champion baristas can create, and flash freezes it at minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit to lock in aroma and quality. The resulting pucks, roughly the size of K-Cups, get delivered to customers in boxes of dry ice. All the customer needs to do is put the coffee puck in a cup and pour hot or cold water over it to melt it. (The pucks can be stored in the freezer and cost about $2 each.)
The company is starting to gain some traction. Respected coffee aficionados vouch for the quality. Venture capitalists are pouring millions into the firm. On Tuesday, Cometeer, which is named after comets for their iciness, said it raised $35 million in new funding, putting its total haul at roughly $100 million.
But its journey has been hampered somewhat by the pandemic, and the competitive landscape is brutal. Specialty coffee cafes, which brew high-quality coffee, seem to dot every city street corner. The startup enters the market with giants like Nespresso and Keurig already dominant. And most notably, it remains to be seen if the product will cross over from coffee fanatics into mass market appeal.
Despite that, Cometeer’s founders believe they offer something simple.
“There’s a lot of people that enjoy coffee and just love coffee as it exists today,” Roberts, the chief executive, said in an interview. “We just think we can make their experience better.”
Walk into Cometeer’s 70,000-square-foot factory, situated in an office park near Gloucester’s three wind turbines, and it feels less like a coffee manufacturer and more like a biotechnology firm.
Proprietary and patented coffee-brewing machines that fill thousand-plus-square-foot rooms are hidden behind locked doors. Advances in flash freezing technology are being perfected. Coffee masters — armed with Princeton degrees and poached from companies like Blue Bottle and George Howell Coffee — are analyzing coffee for quality. The company sources coffee beans from around the world and partners with specialty roasters across America.
Doug Hoon, the company’s cofounder and chief technology officer who started building much of the equipment in his Connecticut basement, said the flash freezing and brewing technology is crucial.
Extracting coffee and ensuring it keeps its high quality when it is flash frozen requires control over things like water chemistry, brewing temperature, and grind size — something that most pieces of industrial coffee equipment on the market cannot offer.
The extract they brew is 10 times as strong as a normal cup. After it is brewed, the company flash freezes the coffee immediately and stores it in oxygen-free, recyclable, and aluminum-made capsules. Those capsules are then dumped into liquid nitrogen to freeze the coffee compounds.
“It wasn’t easy,” Hoon, an MIT-trained engineer, said of his team’s journey designing the machinery and process. “It took us a long time to figure it out.”
Cometeer’s origin story goes back to the early 2010s. Roberts, an economics major at Bentley, studied abroad in Spain and developed a love of good coffee. After returning to Boston, he started brewing his own at home, and found it difficult to make a quality cup consistently.
Inspired by his workaround to freeze coffee in ice trays, he started tinkering with how to do that better. At the same time, he was looking to start his own venture, and coffee seemed more promising than his other business — an e-commerce site similar to Groupon.
With no formal coffee training of his own, Roberts set off to learn from experts. Early on, he tracked down George Howell, a Boston entrepreneur widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the specialty coffee movement, for advice.
Roberts, who said he was “such a rookie in coffee at the time,” found Howell at a coffee conference in Boston. He claimed his attempts at freezing coffee were the next big innovation. Roberts presented Howell with a taste of his early product. It did not go well.
“He practically spit it out,” Roberts recalled.
But as time went on, Howell took Roberts under his wing. Roberts started flash freezing high-quality coffee shots made by Howell’s director of coffee quality. He would put that coffee between two blocks of dry ice, vacuum seal it, and then present it months later. It would keep its flavor and aroma, Roberts remembered.
“That’s when I saw George’s excitement,” he said. “That’s when I knew we really had something. And that’s when I really jumped into this with a credit card.”
Shortly after getting Howell’s backing as an adviser, Roberts met Hoon, who is the father of one of his college classmates.
The duo worked to perfect and protect their brewing and flash freezing technology, along with their capsule design. A few years later, they were ready to show the product to the coffee world.
In April of 2019, they got a booth at the specialty coffee association expo in Boston. Their product, which looked like a K-Cup, initially drew skepticism from the industry’s “biggest coffee snobs,” Hoon said. But after hearing the company had relationships with established coffee personalities like Howell, people gave it a try. (The taste is often described as smooth and fruity.)
“By the end of the weekend you couldn’t get close to our table,” he added. “It was just a phenomenal acceptance of the product among this elite group of coffee professionals.”
Soon after that, the funding started to pour in. In November of 2019, the company raised $10 million, PitchBook data show. In April 2020, another $40 million came through. The company declined to release subscriber data, but said its sales have grown “10x” since the pandemic started. Its investors include venture capital firms like D1 Capital and Greycroft.
Cometeer’s team has swelled to over 110 employees. It has renovated a factory that used to smell like fish sticks into a gleaming facility with industrial freezers, nitrogen tanks, and a coffee lab.
But, Roberts admitted, the pandemic has hurt its pace of growth.
“Coffee is best with other people,” he said. “Less people were out showing our product to their friends. ... I think we missed that networking effect of our product rippling, without people going out in the world and meeting up with people over a cup of coffee.”
Kent Bennett, a partner in the venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, said Cometeer could face challenges scaling up its complex production process. Smoothing out the supply chain for frozen products might also prove tough, he said. (Bennett, who invested in Toast and other food and beverage companies, is not involved with Cometeer.)
But he said that even if the company does not achieve dominance in the coffee world, it might be fine.
“No one product will ever ‘own’ the coffee market,” Bennett said. “If Cometeer can deliver on truly superior-tasting coffee that’s convenient to produce, I’m certain there’s a large market of coffee aficionados ready to embrace it.”