Feature Story

Startups cooking up smart kitchen devices

by Mary Ann Azevedo

smart kitchens

A number of companies are looking to disrupt the cooking (and eating) space as consumers continue to demand convenience in the kitchen.

With advances in IoT technology, cooking is getting a whole lot smarter as more startups are emerging with devices and technologies aimed at the space.

Smart kitchen devices are becoming more mainstream as consumers continue to search for ways to make preparing for mealtime easier, and healthier, via technology. 

There's no question that the field is an area that is ripe for disruption.

Cooking has largely been done the same way over the past few decades – traditionally with an oven, stove or a grill and often with recipes, points out Mike Smerklo, co-founder and managing director of Austin-based Next Coast Ventures.

Let's be clear that this is not an easy sector to break into. There's been a few failures, mainly with companies who have been accused of charging too high a premium for a product that doesn't deliver on value.

Those companies who can find the sweet spot of meeting a need with an easy-to-use, relatively affordable device offering a differentiated experience have the best chances of success, adds Smerklo. In May 2017, Next Coast invested in smart oven maker Brava Home out of Newark, Calif. – a company that it believes meets all those criteria.

Mike Wolf, publisher of The Spoon and creator of the Smart Kitchen Summit, agrees with Smerklo's assessment.

 "We've been talking about the idea of a future kitchen since the 1950s and 1960s," he says. "But the reason now it seems gaining traction is that technology has advanced to the point you can create new ways to interact in, and around and with, our food."

See also: Technology that helps reduce food waste

Wolf points to the success of the Instant Pot, a re-invented pressure cooker designed by Robert Wang after he was laid off from his software engineering job in 2008.

Wang is now CEO of Canada-based Double Insight, the company the produces the Instant Pot. Double Insight turned the corner to profitability in 2012, two years after the Instant Pot launched, according to an NBC News article. The company has seen its revenue double every year since, the article noted, and sold 215,000 units in a single day in 2016 as part of an Amazon Prime Day promotion.

Another example of success in the space is Anova Culinary, a San Francisco, Calif.-based cooking hardware startup that was acquired last year by Swedish appliance giant Electrolux for $250 million. Founded in 2013, the company makes a precision cooker that is Bluetooth and Wifi-enabled so that users can cook from a distance.

From pot to fork

There is also a flurry of lower-profile companies in the smart kitchen space. For example, Hapilabs Ltd. created the HAPIfork, an electronic fork that helps users monitor and track their eating habits. The fork passively monitors how fast a user eats. It then vibrates and lights up to let him/her know when they're eating too quickly.

Another startup in the space is Hestan Smart Cooking. The Napa Valley, Calif.-based company was founded in 2015 by Stanley Cheng and Christoph Milz, Jon Jenkins, Philip Tessier, and is now wholly owned by Meyer International Holding.

Hestan Smart Cooking launched its first product as a countertop appliance in April 2017. The Hestan Cue features an 11-inchsmart fry pan and 1600-watt smart induction burner, as well as a video-guided recipe app for a smartphone or tablet. It is sold on the company's website, at Williams-Sonoma and on Amazon.

Since then, the company has released additional items and integrated its Cue technology with built-in induction cooktops, which will launch in the summer of 2018 with the launch of the new Hestan Kitchen Appliances division.

See also: Buzzfeed's new kitchen devie and other innovations in food tech

The startup's video-guided app provides users recipes with step-by-step cooking instructions from prep to plating. The app also is connected via Bluetooth to the cookware and the burner and automatically regulates the temperature to what's required in that step of the recipe.

"With that experience, home cooks can be confident about the outcome, learn new techniques as they cook through different recipes," said Managing Director Milz.  "All the recipes go through a rigorous internal and external testing before they are released…so that whether the user is an experienced cook or has never cooked before, the result turns out with great reliability."

The Hestan Smart Cooking team includes chefs, software and mechanical engineers, designers, culinary scientists and marketers.

"Bringing all these disciplines together under one roof and making them work very well together gives us a great advantage over other companies that miss important elements," Milz said.

Automated Cooking

Else Labs is a Canadian startup that has created Oliver, a smart and automatic cooking device operated by a dedicated app. Oliver mirrors the individual steps of traditional stove-top cooking by following one-pot recipes that have been pre-programmed by professional chefs, according to Founder Khalid Aboujassoum.

With Oliver, users can choose a recipe preprogrammed by a professional chef in their smartphones and the app will guide them through the ingredients they need, how to prepare them and fill the canisters accordingly. Oliver will dispense ingredients into the pot "at the right time," according to Aboujassoum. adjust heat, and control the cooking time.

A user can command the device to start cooking from their phones.

Founded in 2014, the company has built an advanced working version of Oliver that it is using to conduct one-on-one sessions with early adopters in their homes. Else Labs plans to formally launch the device in 2018.

See also: World Food Day and how Cisco tech aids in alleviating hunger

Aboujassoum said he was up to the challenge of replicating the consistencies of a chef-made meal at home.

"Oliver knows when to dispense and do the needed mixing," Aboujassoum said. "We're talking here about the full automation of cooking so that the user can make homemade food with a hands-off experience."



Photo courtesy of Hestan Smart Cooking.