Smart-Kitchen Startups Give Cooks Digital Help Via Internet of Things

Xconomy National — 

When it comes to connected homes, the hottest spot is located in your kitchen.

The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and related technologies are being used to connect ovens, refrigerators, and other kitchen appliances to the Web. Feeling unsure about cooking that fish dish? Smart ovens can more accurately calibrate temperatures to avoid over-cooking. There’s even a robotics company in London called Moley that says it is developing an entire kitchen—complete with robotic arms—that can learn how grandma made her meatloaf and cook it for you, long after she’s gone.

With only one in 10 Americans saying they love to cook, our collective kitchen expertise is at an all-time low, according to a Harvard Business Review article. So, even when “consumers want to try new things… they may not have the knowledge or confidence to do it,” says David Cronstrom, head of strategy and ecosystems at Swedish appliance maker Electrolux. “Technology can make the experience more seamless and more personalized.”

Last month, Electrolux announced a partnership with Innit, which makes an app that offers recipes based on user preferences, dietary restrictions, or just what you have in the fridge. Innit can send customized cooking instructions to, say, an Electrolux oven, which would then turn on the broiler at the appropriate time. The app can also be controlled via virtual assistants as well as on a smartphone.

“The home is going through a transformation and the kitchen is a big opportunity for this company,” Cronstrom says, referring to Electrolux.

Indeed, the promise of robotics and other tech tools making the upkeep of hearth and home easier has been around since the dawn of the space age. And while our homes don’t quite resemble The Jetsons, a number of companies are using machine learning, robotics, and voice technologies to give once-inert kitchen appliances the ability to help us plan meals and cook more efficiently.

Among the most futuristic of these endeavors is Moley Robotics, which has designed a commercial-grade kitchen for homes—complete with robotic hands that were in part taught to cook by BBC’s 2011 Master Chef Tim Anderson, according to the company’s website. Moley executives were not available for comment.

Silicon Valley-based Innit is among a group of startups developing software that can be integrated into smart appliances outfitted with cameras and other technologies that can tell a user what food she has on hand, suggest a few recipes, and tell you how to cook a meal. (The startup also had a now-ended partnership with Whirlpool.) Two years ago, Bosch announced it would pair its smart ovens with technology from Drop, which is based in San Francisco and Ireland. Drop allows oven cook times, temperature, and humidity levels to be controlled via Wi-Fi based on recipes chosen from its app. And in 2014, Korean appliance maker Samsung bought SmartThings, which makes a hub of sorts for smart homes that is able to connect to about 200 devices.

Other startups such as June, Anova, and Tovala have been focused on building smart appliances themselves. Last year, Electrolux added to its smart appliance arsenal by buying Anova, which makes the Anova Precision Cooker, for $250 million, according to CB Insights.

David Rabie, co-founder and CEO of Chicago-based Tovala, had spent time in the food industry, founding a chain of vegan restaurants and frozen yogurt stores. As meal-kit companies proliferated and technology began to be introduced into the manual cooking process, Rabie says, “every product meant compromises from taste to time to health to energy.”

So, he says he and his co-founder set out to create a product that “controls everything from the ingredients to the end result of cooking.” Tovala sells a smart oven along with meal kits for between $199 and $399, depending on the meal plan chosen.

The smart oven is programmed to know how to cook Tovala’s meals, and can be set to more generic “salmon” or “chicken” settings so a user could make their own recipe. The key, Rabie says, is that unlike other meal kit services, with Tovala there’s very little prep in advance and, therefore, not much to clean up.

“We’ve heard from customers who’ve said they didn’t eat fish before Tovala because it was an intimidating ingredient to cook,” he says.

In December, Tovala raised a $9.2 million Series A funding round led by Origin Ventures, with Pritzker Group Venture Capital, Morningstar founder Joe Mansueto, and Y Combinator, among others, participating. (Tovala was part of Y Combinator’s 2017 winter class.)

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley-based June, another smart oven startup, has received investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund. The exact amount wasn’t disclosed but, in a blog post, Amazon said June would become a part of Alexa’s Smart Home Skill API (application programming interface).

Aviel Ginzburg, managing director of the Techstars Alexa accelerator, says voice technologies and the connected home are becoming “the peanut butter and jelly of consumer IoT.”

And, perhaps not surprisingly, this combination of technologies has gained some of its best traction in the kitchen. “The best of these products aren’t the best because of technology alone, but because of the seamless marriage of the physical and the digital,” he wrote in a Techstars IoT newsletter in March. “They are those experiences that let us interact with technology in the right context, in the right way, at the exact right time. They don’t break, don’t overburden the user, and truly make things easier.”