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The Locals: The Kanik Brothers Part 1: Smart Cups



There are few inventions that can make the average person turn their head with immediate curiosity. I’d argue that such inventions come only once every half-decade. What I discovered over the past three weeks falls somewhere in that space. I received a message from someone named Michael Kanik in late February. In that message, I learned about how two locals started their own vastly different niche empires. Brothers Chris and Michael Kanik, born here in Hudson County, despite having very different vocations ahead of them, each carved out a business that fit their childhood ambitions like a glove.

I was invited to attend a seminar where Chris Kanik would address a group of students at Jose Marti STEM Academy. Chris, a stand-up comedian, scientist, and entrepreneur, took the reins and got the kids excited about their futures while simultaneously laying out the hurdles and hardships they will inevitably have to face.

Chris Kanik was not like every other kid on the block. At the age of ten, Chris was eligible to attend a program at Montclair for gifted kids. Upon looking through the course catalog, he realized that the sciences were what really called out to him. Not because he envisioned himself as the real-world analogue to Reed Richards but he instead had a very different inspiration.

“I was like, ‘I like MacGyver, I wanna learn how to blow stuff up,’” he said. Yet, aside from the childlike wonder and explosive chaos that the world of science could promise, it also offered a very real and tangible future. The notion of which wouldn’t become evident until two years later when he met his mentor, Nadia Makar.

Upon relocating to Woodrow Wilson (now Gilmore Academy), he immediately engaged in the science fair activities with a passion and competitiveness that did not go unnoticed. Ms. Makar got Chris into Stevens Institute of Technology at the age of twelve, where he researched the degradation of compounds in certain sodas. Now, as absolutely thrilling as that sounds, it does get significantly more bonkers as we go along.

He would spend four years at Rutgers University as a researcher, but this time NASA was invited to the party. Eventually, he would end up at Cornell University, where he was very close to dropping out to pursue stand-up comedy. Fate had other plans for him, and he eventually finished out his time at Cornell and got his Bachelor in Economics.

After a few years of different ventures, Chris landed on a very specific idea. What if he were to “3D print” (actually microencapsulation) edible substances on the base of a cup? Now, it might sound like I just strung a bunch of random words together, but there’s actually something ingenious here. Shipping costs would be brought down significantly, carbon emissions would go along with it, the transportation of said goods could be quadrupled, and most importantly, food would be significantly more accessible to the average person by an incredibly large margin. To use the cup, all you’d have to do is pour water into it. Sounds like a dream. Except, it was far from it.

Smart Cups was officially born. Now, it wasn’t an immediate success. Started in 2011, the company didn’t really take flight until around 2021 when TIME Magazine gave it a special mention in its “100 Best Inventions” list of that same year. Despite this major milestone, it would take another major accomplishment to get Smart Cups noticed in the public eye. Enter Gordon Ramsay.

That’s right, the immensely irate and simultaneously beloved chef changed the trajectory of Chris’ company in 2023 when Chris was a contestant on Food Stars. A Shark Tank-esque TV show where multiple contestants based in the food industry attempt to win a $250,000 investment from Gordon himself. As you might have guessed, Chris won. Not only securing a major financial win for Smart Cups but also drastically increasing the company’s notoriety overnight.

Hudson County native Chris Kanik and Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay on the set of “Food Stars”

Major news networks caught wind of the product. Networks ranging from FOX to tabloid sites like TMZ all sprinted forth with their microphones to learn more. All his previous endorsements, from the likes of Mike Tyson to Jenny McCarthy, gained much more traction. Things were looking much better than just good, they were reaching new heights of immense hype.

I, like many of you, had not heard of Smart Cups until I was contacted by his brother last month. It was an interesting deep dive to say the least. Looking through footage of his time on Food Stars, I stumbled upon a moment where Chris was pitching Smart Cups to Gordon and, to quote him verbatim, “You have Michelin Stars, I’m talking about Nobel Prize-worthy work.”

It’s one hell of a proclamation to be making. So it begs the question: Is it really all it’s chalked up to be? I wanted to ask the man himself and pose any skepticism I might have directly. To be fair, I didn’t really have many. After all, it’s quite a straightforward concept. But there was one thing I was curious about, and it seems like I’m not the only one who had been thinking it.

I wanted to know how he would differentiate the benefits between his product and standard powdered drinks like Kool-Aid or things of the like. Chris acknowledged that he gets asked this quite a bit but that there is a significant difference between the two products.

For one, Smart Cups already have a preselected dose of whatever it might be that you’re drinking. You don’t have to fumble around with a scoop to try and figure out how much powder you actually need. Secondly, there’s micronutrients built into the edible material that, in theory, would be more healthy than your standard powdered beverage. And lastly, Smart Cups is providing a vessel for their drinks. The cup itself.

Disregarding the fact that the cups are not manufactured by Smart Cups themselves, they were still sourced with an environmentally conscious effort. The cups are made of PLA, a plant-based material which is both compostable and recyclable. However, Chris is not loyal to these kinds of cups and did tell me that if a better option were to become available, they’d aim for it. Especially since Smart Cups says it can virtually print on any kind of surface imaginable. The limitations are few and far between.

The only real legitimate doubt is not related to the cups themselves but how they might be utilized. Smart Cups were part of a study done by UCLA (which can be read here) and it highlights some interesting points about its environmental advantages. It mentions how the design and implementation of the printed material can genuinely reduce strain on shipping and the overuse of packaging. Even so, it also makes a point of saying that those benefits are only present if Smart Cups are used with tap water. If used with bottled water, the positive effects on the environment become negligible.

Chris isn’t dissuaded by this. Primarily because if Smart Cups can become as ubiquitous as the water bottle, then there would be no need for people to fill up their Smart Cups with a bottle. Kill the plastic bottle, and the tap is the only place to go. Kind of neat if it’s achievable.

Towards the end of our interview, I was curious about the future of his company. Since, as of writing this, the only Smart Cups products they offer are all energy drinks. Yet, Chris has shown off variations of the cups that contain printed soup, hot chocolate, alcoholic beverages (the original intention of the Smart Cups idea), but he’s also made a point that pharmaceuticals and hygiene products could also find their way into these cups.

Those goalposts are still where Chris wants to take Smart Cups, and he’s working to make that technology viable for the companies associated with the aforementioned industries. Who knows, maybe one day pills, mouthwash, and fancy booze will all be things of the past. Maybe the next time you’re at a bar and you order some pretentious cocktail, all the bartender will have to do is pour water into a cup. Tipping your bartender will hurt just a little bit more.

That’s all to say, the future is here, my esteemed friends. Truth be told, it always has been. No one is more in tune with that than Chris, who has been envisioning it ever since he picked up that course catalog at the age of ten. To quote one of his childhood heroes and the whole reason he started this journey: “When it comes down to me against a situation, I don’t like the situation to win.” – MacGyver