It’s notoriously challenging to earn Gordon Ramsay’s approval, but after enduring weeks of intense food and business-related competition, former Cornell student Chris Kanik ’05 walked away with $250,000 and further motivation to propel his sustainability-focused company, Smart Cups, to greater heights.
“The last two weeks have been absolutely crazy,” Kanik said, having received an outpour of support following his success on the show. “[Competing in ‘Food Stars’] was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life — I’ve got a business, staff, a family. But my eye was on the prize.”
“Gordon Ramsay’s Food Stars” follows 15 aspiring food entrepreneurs competing for a chance to win the $250,000 investment and a business partnership with Ramsay. Contestants faced various challenges spanning branding, marketing, time management, hospitality, advertising and quality control. They also received guidance from guest experts, from Uber and UberEats CEO Dara Khosrowshshi to social media star MrBeast.
“Your product could quite honestly change the world,” Ramsay told Kanik during the Aug. 16 season one finale. “I want to be part of that journey with you — right by your side.”
Founded by Kanik in 2017, Smart Cups employs a unique, novel approach of printing water-based products directly onto surfaces, aiming to advance sustainability and reduce waste in consumable products. This concept has been termed active ingredient printing.
“Our method is usually referred to as 3D printing because nothing like what we do has ever existed before. It’s easier to call it 3D printing because it is the most relatable reference point for consumers and businesses,” Kanik told 3DNatives in 2020. “While there is indeed a three-dimensional print, what we do at Smart Cups is a unique microencapsulation process.”
The company made its debut with a line of energy drinks that require only the addition of water to transform the printed ingredients into a ready-to-drink beverage. These ingredients are enclosed within a plant-based shell that adheres to the bottom of the cup, which is made out of an eco-friendly bioplastic. When in contact with liquid, this shell activates, automatically stirring and instantly converting the cup into a beverage.
According to Kanik, Smart Cups hopes to expand its technology to other types of products including water purification, personal care and medication. Smart Cups’ partnerships include Mike Tyson’s cannabis company, The Ranch Companies and Compana Pet Brands.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to make a positive impact on the planet,” Kanik said. “The ability to provide micronutrients and water purification systems, in a sustainable and efficient manner, is the way that I can help the world.”
A recent study conducted by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that using Smart Cups with tap water reduced production energy consumption by 23 percent to 48 percent. This led to a significant 40 percent to 57 percent reduction in global warming potential, which measures the impact of production on atmospheric warming. Smart Cups funded, but was not involved, in the research.
Kanik was inspired to start Smart Cups on a “Taco Tuesday” night in 2011 when his drink was taking too long to arrive. Thirsty and impatient, he dreamt of an instant margarita. Teaming up with microencapsulation specialist Salvatore Celeste, he began to develop Smart Cups technology, using original manufacturing equipment and microencapsulation techniques.
“Maybe I was too stupid 11 years ago, and I didn’t realize how daunting of a task this was. There was no manufacturing equipment — we had to figure [Smart Cups technology] all out by ourselves,” Kanik said. “I just said f*** it — I’ve never done anything traditionally or orthodox, so let’s just do this unorthodox.”
Since its creation, “The World’s First Printed Beverage” has been recognized by Time Magazine on their list of the 100 Best Inventions of 2021. According to startup investing platform StartEngine, Smart Cups is currently valued at $10.65 million and has raised over $1 million in the last year.
Kanik said he was excited to participate in Gordon Ramsay’s show for the opportunity to publicize his product and highlight his sustainability-driven business efforts.
“Now having Gordon Ramsay on my side, it opens up a lot of doors because with new technology, adoption and consumer education is the biggest issue,” Kanik said. “I knew [the show would] get us very close to the ultimate goal here — turning Smart Cups into a globally-adopted technology.”
Long before he was a CEO and television star, Kanik was raised by his Turkish and Cuban immigrant parents in Union City, New Jersey. Kanik’s early fascination with science led him into a college chemistry class at the age of 10. By 14, Kanik worked as a research assistant at Rutgers University.
When Kanik first got to Cornell, however, he started to experience burnout and switched his major to economics by junior year. After graduating, he became a stand-up comic and briefly explored the entertainment industry.
“My experience is very vast,” Kanik said. “I was a stand-up comic for a period of time — and I have accumulated experience in other disciplines of science like rheology, flavor chemistry, product development formulation, physics, engineering.”
Despite his unconventional path, Kanik is grateful for his time at Cornell, an experience that he said changed his life.
“Even though I really don’t need a degree, my biggest regret was never getting my chemistry degree from Cornell, because I only needed a couple more classes.” Kanik said. “If there’s any way that I could take those classes, I would. If I didn’t have Smart Cups and had more time, I would go back to Cornell and get my Ph.D.”
Kanik reminisced about his days at the University, where he served as a student manager in West Campus dining halls, which he cites as the best job he ever had. He said he made lifelong friends and unforgettable memories, including spending time with rapper Uncle June Bug during Snoop Dogg’s performance at Slope Day in 2005.
“Cornell was a special time because it brought me out of my shell,” Kanik said. “I became a completely different person than when I started.”
Kanik also said an equally difficult and valuable aspect of Cornell is the exposure to different groups of people.
“At Cornell, you’re exposed and you’re surrounded by [students] driving a Mercedes and a Lexus or BMW, and you’re just trying to keep money together to get a plane ride back home for the holidays,” Kanik said, reflecting on his own experience as a low-income student at Cornell. “That’s the hard part, but it’s also great because it exposes you to a different world.”
To this day, Kanik said that Cornell continues to play a large role in his life. An article from The Cornell Daily Sun which highlights his campaign for a student government role still hangs on his wall. During a casual stroll in California, Kanik ran into a former student-athlete and frequenter at his on-campus dining job. Kanik had remembered his exact sandwich order.
Kanik said his eldest son, a freshman in high school and motivated business student, dreams of following in his father’s footsteps and playing football at Cornell.
“As a poor kid coming in seeing all these legacy students, now being able to create a legacy of [my] own — that’s pretty f***ing cool,” Kanik, a dad of three, said.
Kanik advised Cornell students not to be hard on themselves and not to fear failure.
“The problem about Cornell kids is that when they enter Cornell, they’re not accustomed to failing,” Kanik said. “Life is not linear. You just gotta figure it out, be opportunistic, see what’s in front of you and make the most out of the cards that you’re dealt.”