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CSU, Chico News

Professor, Students Design Product Featured on ‘Shark Tank’ TV Program

Date: 10-11-2013

Sarah Langford
Public Affairs
Daren Otten
Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing

California State University, Chico manufacturing professor Daren Otten has worked with dozens of entrepreneurs over the years, but none has found as much success as Chris Johnson of Rapid Ramen. Johnson, a Sacramento businessman, recently landed a major deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and is now fast-tracking distribution of a product designed by Otten and a team of CSU, Chico students.

Otten, who serves as vice chair of the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing, went into contract with Johnson a year ago through the University’s Research and Sponsored Programs to design a microwavable container for cooking instant ramen noodles. Johnson, a UC Davis graduate who said he relied on the inexpensive meal in college, said the idea hit him one day while he was standing over the stove, waiting for water to boil.

“It takes five minutes to boil the water, another three or four to cook the noodles, and then you have to let it cool,” he said. “Microwaving it never tastes as good. I thought, ‘You shouldn’t have to sacrifice taste for speed. There’s got to be a better way.’”

A colleague referred Johnson to Otten, who has been designing products for 20 years, and the two hit it off immediately. “I’m not a ramen eater, but I recognized how simple and doable the project was,” Otten said. “That, combined with Chris’ enthusiasm, made me want to do it.”

Otten enlisted the help of three sustainable manufacturing students to conduct research, establish proof of concept and design a prototype. Their research included taking detailed package measurements of the seemingly endless brands of instant ramen in grocery stores. A month after starting, the Rapid Ramen Cooker was born, a square container made of high quality plastic with a water-fill line and heat-resistant handles. It measures slightly larger than the leading brand of ramen and cooks the noodles to perfection in half the stove time, Johnson has said.

Johnson hit the ground running, bringing his prototype to the market and making inroads with major grocery chains. He soon faced the problem of finding a mass producer, and with no experience in production, again turned to Otten for guidance. With Otten leading the search and Johnson taking notes, the two interviewed manufacturers around the world, including the U.S., Indonesia and India, eventually settling on China.

“Daren was on the front-end of negotioations during the sourcing process,” Johnson recalled. “I feel like got my MBA in how to bring a product to market, and he was my defacto professor.”

Since the cooker’s launch last November, Johnson has sold more than 100,000 units, about $300,000 worth, and found shelf space in Walmart, Raley’s, Safeway, WinCo and other major stores. The cooker being sold is actually a second protoype designed by Otten and the students that includes inverted heat-resistant handles to direct water back into the bowl if the user overfilled it. “It was a small change, but functionally it’s a better product,” Johnson said, adding that he keeps the original prototype on his desk as a reminder of the company’s beginnings.

His Oct. 4 appearance on “Shark Tank” boosted sales significantly, he said. During the show, which allows business owners to pitch their company or product to multimillionaire “sharks” for cash investments, Johnson secured $300,000 from Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, after a nail-biting round of negotiations. Otten said while most of the entrepreneurs he works with are vying to get on the show, Johnson is first to actually make it on, much less strike a deal.

“Chris knows what he knows, and knows what he doesn’t know,” Otten explained. “He surrounds himself with people who do know, and he isn’t afraid to hear ‘no.’”

The owner of a teen dance club at 16, a modeling agency at 19 and a staffing company, Johnson agrees with that assessment. He is writing a book about his experiences and said overcoming his fear of failure has been key.

“So many people have an idea for a project, but the fear of the unknown keeps them from following through,” he said. “WinCo told me no, Walmart told me no… where would I be if I had listened to them?”

View Johnson’s appearance on “Shark Tank” and learn more about Rapid Ramen at rapidramen.com. To learn more about CSU, Chico’s Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing, visit csuchico.edu/mmem.