Analy High grad’s FinalStraw invention gets $1.9 million in Kickstarter backing

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Miles Pepper didn’t expect a cup of iced coffee to lead to a $1.9 million idea.

The 23-year-old Analy High School graduate frequents Los Angeles-based Civil Coffee, where he picks up an iced brew with a splash of milk to drink on his way to freelance gigs in the film industry. This November, as he pierced the lid of his to-go cup with a plastic straw, he thought it was time to invest in a reusable drinking device.

“I went to Amazon, and I couldn’t find anything that should have already existed: a collapsible, reusable straw,” said Pepper, who graduated from Analy High School in 2013 and now lives in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood. “There was nothing out there.”

FinalStraw was born. It’s a stainless steel collapsible straw lined with medical-grade tubing that folds into a tiny case made from recycled material. At 2.8 ounces, it’s small enough to fit on a key chain and can be cleaned with an included squeegee. The effort raised $1.9 million in 30 days on Kickstarter.

“Plastic straws can’t be recycled because of their size – they’re too small to be sorted,” Pepper said. “At best, plastic straws end up in the landfill. Because they’re so lightweight, they sometimes end up in gutters and out to the ocean as trash, where they’re mistaken by sea critters, fish and turtles as food.”

Around the county, movements to limit single-use straws are in full swing, including proposed legislation in California barring restaurants from offering straws unless requested by customers.

Tapping into the trend, Pepper worked with Emma Cohen, a 32-year-old Canadian he met at the Burning Man, to create the concept. She was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the pollution prevention department, and they shared a vision of sustainability, he said.

They spent about three hours a day on the phone hashing out the finer points of the design before working together in person in April, assembling about 200 units by hand to send out to media outlets and social media influencers ahead of the April 19 launch of a Kickstarter fund. The duo had a goal of $12,500. The first day, they reached $53,000 and the campaign closed May 19 with nearly $2 million from 38,443 backers.

“It’s just the coolest thing ever,” Pepper said in a phone interview. “I never expected anything like this. It speaks to the fact that people want to change and they want to do good for the environment and they want the ability to do that. People need to be given the tools in order to do that, and we’ve come up with a really cool product that’s taken it to the next level.”

With 100,000 preorders already, he’s headed to China on June 4 to check out manufacturing facilities near Hong Kong, he said. He’s patented the straw and is also working on distribution with his team. He aims to have products hit the market by November, he said.

FinalStraws, which cost between $20 and $30 each, also will come with a set of informational cards detailing how wasteful plastic straws are that can be left at businesses that use them. That fits in with the year-old “Sip It Sonoma” effort offering similar cards, a campaign to serve straws only on request in restaurants, said Leslie Lukacs, a founder of the Sonoma County Zero Waste Symposium.

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“I totally support (the project),” said Lukacs, who is the director of zero waste at SCS Engineers. “That’s exactly what Sip It Sonoma is about — minimizing plastic pollution, especially being a coastal county … it’s all about behavior change.”

Pepper credits his success in part to his time in Ann Humphrey’s video production class at Analy High School. Though the class, he met Matt Nix, an Analy High School graduate best known for creating the USA Network TV show “Burn Notice.” Nix would later help Pepper get his start in the entertainment industry, he said.

The class gave him real-world experience, he said. He’s gone on to work with clients such as AMC and Discovery Channel but is now focused on FinalStraw.

“I had already worked through learning the trade — how to work with the clients and deliver with deadlines, how to manage people and money and produce a product,” he said.

Humphrey, who left Analy in 2017 and now works at Twin Hills Charter Middle School as a part-time video production teacher, praised Pepper’s accomplishments. She’s not at all surprised, she said, describing him as a dedicated student who took advantage of opportunities. His father, Rick Pepper, is an avid Sonoma County cyclist who invented an emergency identity tag for cyclists that also works as a bottle opener, she said.

“Miles is not only the kind of student you want to have, he’s also just the kind of person you’d want to engage with,” she said. “He makes you feel good. In 17 years, I never saw anyone come through with quite the ability to be at ease with people and be charming. All people wanted to do was help him.”

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