Dream vs. reality hits hard for entrepreneur

Anyone who has used one of those straws that come glued to a juice box or pouch knows the potential peril: stick it in too fast or squeeze it too tight and you can end up with more on your shirt than in your mouth.

Robert Stribling of Between, Ga., experienced just that problem with his then-toddler daughter. Mechanically inclined and entrepreneurial by nature, he went about designing a straw that couldn't spill.

Five years and "several million dollars" later, he has a product, a company (The Last Straw LLC) and a network of engineers and manufacturers ready to make his straws. He has also got a growing number of consumers who endorse them.

Now, if he can only find a beverage company willing to use them.

"We're looking for brands," says Stribling, 45, a Stone Mountain native whose main business continues to be a waste management company, Stribling Systems. "We're kind of in a chicken-and-egg situation now."

Stribling doubts he'll be able to attract a large brand owned by a Coca-Cola, Nestle or Kraft, reasoning that they are not likely to make a major packaging change when they're already selling huge volumes.

Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State's J.Mack Robinson College of Business and a business consultant, describes the tipping point.

"The key" Bernhardt said, "is does it add enough to a beverage company's sales beyond the cost they would incur to utilize it."

In response, Stribling has taken a two-pronged approach to getting his straw to the market. He's trying to generate consumer demand for his straw through a clever Web site and via local and national media appearances.

At the same time, he's trying to convince one of the world's three big drink box makers to use his straw as a way of distinguishing its product from the competition's.

The end goal is landing a contract, probably with a smaller, premium brand drinkmaker for whom the added cost (probably a few cents per box) would be less a factor.

Stribling has come a long way since the afternoon in 2004 when his daughter, Emily, then 2, sprayed herself with juice right after a bath and fresh change of clothes.

That sent him to his workbench with a knife and some plastic.

The basic idea was simple enough: add a valve to the top of the straw that would permit liquid to rise only when drawn by mouth. The bottom part of the straw looks like the others, long and straight. But the top, the piece that goes into the mouth, is different.

The tricky part of Stribling's innovation — the part that's required years of planning, engineering, manufacturing research and testing for safety and functionality — is the material that goes into that mouthpiece. It's liquid silicon rubber, an inert, engineered resin made from sand that thus far has had mostly medical and automotive applications.

Stribling has deals to produce the material and to design and assemble the machinery to make the straws.

"I don't think people realize how much you have to go through," he says. "They think, 'I have a great idea and I'm going to make a lot of money off it.' If you have a great idea, that's only 5 percent of it."

Stribling is still the majority owner of the company, though he has partner/investors who have provided engineering and other expertise. One of them, Genesis Capital managing partner Jonathan Goldman, says of the straw's development, "You'd never dream it's so complicated."

Estimates are that more than 100 billion juice boxes with straws are made each year. Stribling says he'd be happy selling to even 5 percent of the market.

If he can find a brand, he'll be on his way. He'll still need to buy, at $3 million each, one or more of the high-speed automation cells that can produce 100 to 200 million straws annually. Until then, he can make tens of thousands of sample straws on other equipment.

Stribling observes that if he can't get a deal, such a costly machine "is just a chunk of steel in the corner."

But he's optimistic it won't come to that.

"Someday soon," he says, people "will find the value added in this."