Alumnus John Mittel uses Industrial Engineering to help Phocus

July 23, 2018

Speed alumnus Dr. John Mittel has a thirst for knowledge. Graduating with Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering in 2013, and a Doctor of Medicine from the School of Medicine in 2018, Mittel has since parlayed what he has learned during his time at the Speed School into his business, Phocus, the beverage company that he co-owns, which provides a healthy alternative to caffeinated drinks.

While initially drawn to engineering projects through tinkering with electronics, Mittel developed a passion for process that outstripped any obsession with tech. 

“I have always and still do build computers. I realized it wasn’t necessary computers or electronics that drove my interest, it was the projects that I really liked," said Mittel.

Determined to keep up, Mittel was committed to going the extra mile during his studies. That led to several late nights spent studying and cramming for his tests and projects. 

"The first year was really difficult. I had a scholarship that required a 3.0 GPA," said Mittel. "I don’t think I’ve ever pulled more all-nighters studying than in that first year.”

Mittel continued to pull all-nighters after his tenure at the Speed School. After graduating with his Bachelor of Science, he went onto the medical school. Throughout both his undergraduate and med school experiences, Mittel was committed to excellence no matter what it took, and diligently found himself working long into the evening. Neither a fan of coffee or sugary drinks, he has since developed an alternative option at Phocus.

In late 2015, Tom O’Grady, a friend and mentor who works in finance and investment, challenged Mittel with coming up with a business idea. Mittel explained that while Red Bull was an enormously successful brand, there were few low sugar, healthy alternatives. Building on both on his acumen as an industrial engineer and through his work with medicine, the pair began to develop Phocus, which serves as a high energy substitute that utilizes natural flavors and no preservatives or sweeteners.

“Phocus took two years to make. We got the formula down. We realized that you can’t make sparkling water in a plastic bottle, unless you are going to use really thick one,” said Mittel. “As a startup, if we have a six-month shelf life, we would have to do a lot of runs. We had to use a different bottle. We had to pivot to a can for sparkling.”

For Mittel, it was risky going into untested waters, but he approached the problem as an engineer, tackling the issue as a mathematical problem. By March 2018, the company had already sold 60K cases, with the promise of more to come. With Phocus sold on Amazon, Mittel was able to apply his mathematical acumen and the problem solving tools that he learned in the Industrial Engineering program to allow him to evaluate their potential. He liked what he saw.

“We use our Amazon data differently than other people do. We start to valuate trends and use those to influence how to roll out to stores. We sell valupacks of each flavor. After 45 days or 60 days, we start to roll out the 12 pack flavors themselves,” said Mittel. “When we watched the Amazon data, we could see the 12 pack variety pack, then the next a four pack variety pack, and then they chose their own flavors.”

Now headquartered on River Road in Louisville, Phocus has taken off and is carried in a number of local venues including Rainbow Blossoms, Fresh Thyme, Lucky’s Supermarket, Lou Berry, Heine Bros., and Paul’s Fruit Market. The company has developed a following that Mittel has helped stoke through mapping trends and working with local business and Amazon to help tailor to those consumer interests.

He attributes his success in large part to his work at the Speed School, which allowed him to establish the core values that he continues to build on today. Industrial Engineering allowed Mittel the opportunity to see how different systems operate within one another, and how to make the most efficient and effective use of those resources to, in his case, grow his brand. His time at the Speed School equally helped form the basis of his learning style, which he later applied to his time in med school. 

“I think it molded my thought process after the first year or two years. It drives decisions still to this day,” said Mittel. “It wasn’t that I loved one thing in engineering, it’s that I got the base for a lot of stuff.”

You can learn more about Mittel's story at the CNBC article or Insider Louisville story on Phocus at the links.