Welcome to #BizUnited, a new series highlighting innovative partnerships between large corporations and small businesses across America. Check back periodically for new installments.
Last December, Elwin Ong’s Silicon Valley engineering startup was approached out of the blue by an unexpected client with an even more unexpected challenge. McDonald’s, it turned out, wanted to reinvent, of all things, the straw.
“They wanted to partner with a team with experience working on cutting edge technology to tackle a unique challenge,” says Ong, the founder and head of engineering and product at JACE, a small design engineering company started last year in San Francisco that specializes in custom products such as wood phone cases and sustainably designed water bottles.
A unique challenge indeed. But why?
McDonald’s was preparing to release its seasonal fan-favorite Chocolate Shamrock Shake – a dual-layer sweet treat with minty milkshake layered over chocolate shake – this spring, and it wanted to find a fun way to let customers enjoy both layers at once, rather than sipping one flavor at a time.
“We’re engineers; we love to solve problems,” Ong said in an email interview. “McDonald’s presented a problem that was in many ways an engineer’s dream. It had a very clear and succinct goal: allow someone to drink both mint and chocolate layers simultaneously.”
In its pursuit of that goal, Ong’s company teamed up with NK Labs – a product design and engineering firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which specializes in products ranging from mobile phones to aerospace products to medical devices. The end result, unveiled last month: The STRAW (Suction Tube for Reverse Axial Withdrawal), a high-tech, J-shaped design with strategically placed holes that allow your milkshake to be experienced with the ideal flavor ratio of chocolate to mint in every sip.
“Both of our teams are comprised of highly credentialed and experienced engineers,” said Ong, whose company has worked with the likes of NASA and Google. “We have alumni from some of the nation’s most elite schools including MIT, Boston University, Tufts and Berkley, and have worked with industry leaders in the science, technology and e-commerce fields, just to name a few.”
It didn’t hurt that the engineers from both teams were big Shamrock Shake fans, either.
“The constraints were also laid out clearly: the cup, the cap, the 50/50 division of liquids – and as many samples as we wanted,” Ong said. “From there, it was a matter of using all the skills we normally apply to any project to come up with the perfect solution.”
For McDonald’s, the partnership with NK Labs and JACE was a no-brainer.
“As a restaurant company that’s always re-inventing ourselves, we wanted to get some of the best engineering minds around to help us revolutionize the way people experience the dual-layered seasonal Chocolate Shamrock Shake,” Terri Hickey, McDonald’s Global Communications, said in an email.
On JACE and NK Labs, she added: “These two firms are highly experienced when it comes to designing innovative products and have worked with a number of large industry leaders in the tech, science and e-commerce space.
McDonald’s works closely with small business owners regularly, as many of their franchisees are small to mid-size business owners, and the company recognizes and values the important contribution small businesses and innovative startups make to the economy.
“Our independent franchisees work hard to make a positive impact in the communities they operate in and to support their employees by providing them with the opportunities to learn, grow and succeed,” Hickey said.
NK Labs and JACE have had experience collaborating with larger businesses on engineering and design projects in the past. “We’ve worked with several other large companies in addition to McDonald’s including Google, Airbus, and Amazon,” explained Ong. “Many of our projects involve applying cutting edge research and bringing them to market, which is an activity that requires some very specific domain knowledge on one hand and knowing lots of other people who can help bring the other pieces of the puzzle.”
From JACE and NK Labs’ perspective, working with large companies helps them engage other important partners on a project, who are often small businesses themselves. “Having a large company back the project amplifies our voice and prioritizes our project in their queue,” added Ong.
As for McDonald’s, Hickey commented that the collaboration with JACE and NK Labs delivered even more than the company had hoped.
“JACE and NK Labs might be smaller businesses, but they truly have big ideas,” she said “They brought creativity, professionalism, highly qualified expertise and fun to the partnership.”