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Project SEED scholar Chris Kanik

From stand-up comic to start-up founder, how this scientist found his voice 

by Linda Wang
September 22, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 38

 

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Credit: Courtesy of Chris Kanik
Kanik (left) with celebrity Mike Tyson, who has signed on to endorse future products and the Smart Cups Technology.

Vitals

Hometown: Union City, N.J.

Years in Project SEED: 1998, 1999, and 2001

Education: B.A., economics, Cornell University, 2005

Current position: Founder and CEO, Smart Cups

Advice for students: “Nothing is impossible, but it takes hard work.”

When Chris Kanik looks back on his ACS Project SEED summer research experiences, in which he participated in the late 1990s and 2001, the entrepreneur says he can trace the success he’s enjoying today back to one person: his high school chemistry teacher, Nadia Makar.

“Project SEED opened up a lot of doors for me,” says Kanik, who today is founder of Smart Cups, a start-up company producing printed instant beverages, like energy drinks. “There probably would not be Smart Cups if it weren’t for Nadia Makar.”

The son of immigrants, Kanik grew up in Union City, N.J. “I liked [the TV show] ‘MacGyver,’ and I liked chemistry, and I wanted to learn how to blow things up,” he says. “Nobody expected me to do well. Nobody expected me to like [chemistry]. I ended up doing well.”

Kanik was introduced to Makar when he was 12 years old. In seventh grade at the time, Kanik wanted to participate in science fairs. “I had this project where I wanted to study the degradation of NutraSweet in diet sodas at room temperature,” he recalls. Because his school didn’t have the equipment he needed to conduct his experiments, Kanik’s science teacher connected him with Nadia Makar, then a science teacher at nearby Union Hill High School.

“Nadia put me in touch with a researcher at Stevens Institute of Technology, who taught me how to use an HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography),” Kanik says. “I worked in her lab for about a year and a half.”

When Kanik started high school, he transferred to Union Hill, and Makar took him under her wing. “I was a freshman, and she said, ‘I’m going to put you in research this summer.’”

Kanik was accepted into the ACS Project SEED program, and Makar introduced him to Project SEED coordinator Susan Fahrenholz, who connected him with a project at Rutgers University. “I felt like I was in over my head,” he says. “I’m dissecting mice, I’m running assays, extrapolating data. I’m 14 years old,” Kanik says.

His research at Rutgers helped him take first place at several science fairs. After graduating from high school, he went to Cornell University for undergrad. During the summers, he would return to Rutgers University to conduct research.

“In my junior year of college, I decided I didn’t want to do chemistry anymore; I wanted to be a stand-up comic,” he says. “Presentations can be boring, and I would always make them very entertaining and pepper them with jokes, and I liked that aspect of it.”

He ended up graduating from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in economics and moved to New York City to be a stand-up comedian. In 2007, he moved to California. There, he decided he wanted to get back into science and got a job at Valeant Pharmaceuticals (now called Bausch Health).

“About seven or eight years ago, I had this idea for instant alcohol. I came up with it at a Taco Tuesday. I drew a protocol on a napkin, I patched together a lab in my kitchen the next day, and I was able to make some instant alcohol,” he says.

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That idea led him to partner with a scientist in Boston who was working on a printing technology for drug delivery. Together, they developed the technology behind Smart Cups, the first printed instant beverage, which launched in December 2017. Their first product is an energy drink. “All you have to do is add water, and in a couple seconds you’ve got your drink,” Kanik says. “We’re working to add additional products to our repertoire.”

He says he was fortunate to have such good mentors growing up, and he wants to be a mentor for others. Kanik says he takes young people on tours of his manufacturing facility, and he plans on starting an internship program. “I’m very passionate about this because if it weren’t for Project SEED and if it wasn’t for ACS, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in right now,” he says. “My mentality is always to be able to give back.”

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