ROSEMONT, ILL. — Whether you spell it ketchup or catsup, use it on burgers or fries, or prefer Heinz or Hunt's, there is one universal problem for the ages: That watery stuff that comes out of the bottle at the beginning of the pour.
Well that problem has a name — syneresis — when water separates from tomato paste.
And Tyler Richards, age 18 and now a freshman in college, says he has a solution.
It's all thanks to a unique ketchup bottle cap that he and friend Jonathan Thompson invented as part of a design class at Liberty North High School in Liberty, Mo.
“Obviously, it's not going to cure cancer. We thought the project would be fun, so that's what we went for,” Richards said. “It seemed like it would be fun to do — spend a year on a ketchup project.”
Well that ketchup project has received plenty of attention, and that certainly was the case at the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2014 conference in Rosemont.
Richards was there to present the unique cap — which has a provisional patent — and talk about his journey. Thompson, his friend and design partner, has enlisted in the Army and was in training.
Attendees that were two and three times Richards' age were all interested in talking to the inventor about the cap, which traps that initial water while allowing the ketchup to deliciously flow.
“It's been pretty cool,” he said. “I haven't had much experience in this industry. So it's been nice to actually get to talk to people who are more knowledgeable.”
When held upside down, the inside of the cap has an umbrella shape attached with a stem to what would be the top of the cap when the bottle is in its upright position. Ketchup flows around the hollowed out half-moon shape and water is collected in the cap. The red gold — make that Red Gold — is squeezed through the hollow stem and through the caps' opening.
“My partner and I chose a problem near and dear to our hearts, and that's food,” Richards said.
The two young men spent their senior year on the work that was part of Project Lead the Way, a nationwide non-profit effort that provides science, technology, engineering and math support to thousands of schools.
Their result was SNAP, which stands for syneresis negation apparatus, and an admission from Richards.
“We mostly selected the name because it was catchy. It doesn't actually snap on anything. It's a twist on cap,” he said.
That cap was designed by the students and ABS prototypes were created using a 3-D printer at Liberty North. Richards, who has secured a provisional patent on the cap, is not sure exactly what plastic ultimately would work best for the invention.
By the time Richards hit the Caps & Closures 2014 conference, he and Thompson had received their fair share of attention about their invention.
“I never realized how passionate people could get about ketchup. I guess people just like seeing those positive stories of young people creating things. Which is great because it happens all the time,” he said. “It has been a little bit overwhelming.
“I just came in to make a little cap," and never expected it to be anything more, he said.
The college freshman knows that he wants to go into engineering, he's just not sure exactly what type just yet — maybe mechanical, or electrical or even materials. Just weeks into his career at Missouri University of Science and Technology, he has time.
Todd Richards, his father, was also at the conference organized by Plastics News and called the entire experience surrounding the invention “surreal.”
“It really has been quite a ride,” he said.
Seems like his son does not enjoy being the center of attention, but, somehow, he's managed.
“He spent a lot of time trying to fight this,” he father said, before coming around. “He's very humble.”
But Todd Richards said it has been great to see the students get the recognition for not only the invention, but also the process. “Even if they don't make any money, the experience is priceless,” the father said.
As for Tyler Richards — who picked up the “the Ketchup Kid” nickname along the way — he's not exactly sure what the future will hold with the cap.
“I'm exploring my options. So it would be nice to see this actually get on the market some way or another. But I've been happy with the experience overall so far,” he said. “It's been fun.”