FoodTechWrap: Robots Delivering Meals, Making Custom Salads in SF

Food—it’s messy. It spoils. We don’t have time to cook it. We can’t live without it. These problems are catnip for hopeful tech startups looking for a business niche.

Here’s a fast wrap-up on food tech companies and what they’re serving up lately in the Bay Area.

Marble set loose its first fleet of restaurant meal delivery robots this week in San Francisco—where else? This autonomous rolling box that looks like a deli’s ice cream bar freezer might not rate a second glance on the streets here.

San Francisco-based Marble is deploying the robot crew in a partnership with Yelp Eat24, whose app takes orders from local restaurants and coordinates delivery. Marble also announced Wednesday it has raised $4 million in a seed funding round led by Eclipse, joined by Maven Ventures, Amplify Partners, and Lemnos Labs.

The startup, founded in 2015, plans to extend the San Francisco robot service beyond its first two neighborhoods—the Mission district and Potrero Hill—and then expand to other cities.

Those boxy white robots are loaded with technology to help them navigate sidewalks and streets without bumping into people or anything else, the company says. That includes gizmos used in self-driving cars, such as cameras and LIDAR, a laser-based space-mapping system.

—In another automaton debut, Chowbotics is introducing Sally the Salad Robot on Thursday at Galvanize Cafe on Tehama Street. “She” can whip up a custom-made salad from as many as 21 different ingredients in less than a minute, the Redwood City startup boasts.

Sally has a name, but not a face. Like the Marble robot, Sally is a refrigerator-sized box. You tell her what you want by pressing icons on her touchscreen: cherry tomatoes, chicken, kale, Parmesan, etc. Inside the box, various canisters containing the separate ingredients spin around until they get to the stuff you want and shoot it into your bowl.

Caveat: Sally can’t yet handle two messy ingredients: avocado and egg. But Chowbotics is working on it. Hate salad? The company is readying Sally for Mexican and Indian food.

Redwood City, CA-based Chowbotics foresees a market in office and university cafeterias, restaurants, and hotels. Sally’s current list price is $30,000. In a Series A funding round in March, Chowbotics raised $5 million from Techstars Ventures, Foundry Group, Galvanize Ventures and the Geekdom Fund.

—Both Marble and Chowbotics mention valuable public benefits in support of their robot servants. Marble says its delivery service can relieve urban congestion and reduce fuel use. Chowbotics says it can quickly dispense healthy food hygienically for busy employees. But like many robotic technologies, they raise questions about the fate of human workers, like cafeteria staffers and those San Francisco action heroes, the bike messengers who deliver take-out meals.

If you’re interested in the issue of automation and the future of human employment, check out Xconomy Seattle editor Ben Romano’s great series on the End Of Work (EOW), which started in January.

Two more food-related companies are keeping people front and center, but organizing them to try to maximize resources and minimize effort.

—San Francisco-based startup Full Harvest has created an online marketplace to connect farms with customers who’ll buy their imperfect, but fresh and nutritious strawberries, lettuce, and other fruits and vegetables.

The company has just raised $2 million to grow the B2B software platform, which aims to salvage some of the 20 billion pounds of produce that is wasted every year in the United States because it lacks an ideal shape or size. Farmers who harvest this food get extra money, and food processing companies get the produce at a discount.

See the full write-up by Xconomy agtech reporter and editor of Xconomy Raleigh-Durham, Frank Vinluan.

JoyRun, a sort of mash-up of early Facebook and Yelp Eat24, is a combined take-out food delivery service and social media network based on college campuses.

The Santa Clara, CA-based startup basically scales up that common dorm or office practice: Somebody who’s going out to pick up a burrito takes orders from everyone else. JoyRun’s online peer-to-peer delivery platform shows users which people are planning to go for a food run nearby, so users can add their orders. The JoyRunners (delivery folks) add a little fee to each person’s order on top of the meal price. If they set the fee at $5 or less, JoyRun takes no cut.

The startup launched the service in beta in 2015, and it now covers 50 college campuses in the United States, including U.C. Davis. JoyRun estimates that it now handles about 10,000 orders a week.

JoyRun recently opened the service to campuses nationwide, and announced March 30 that it raised $8.5 million in Series A funding led by Floodgate. Other investors include Norwest Venture Partners, Visionnaire Ventures, Morado Ventures, CrunchFund, and Triplepoint Capital.

—Straying off the tech beat, biotech startup Amfora announced Wednesday it raised $5 million in a Series A round led by San Francisco-based Spruce Capital, which was joined by the Australian-based national science agency, The Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

San Francisco-based Amfora is developing nutritionally-enhanced forage crops designed to increase the production of protein in animals, including dairy cows and cattle sold for beef.

The company has a worldwide, exclusive license to the technology CSIRO developed to increase the energy density in forage crops. The Amfora deal inaugurates a new business model for the Australian science agency—investing in U.S. startups that can commercialize its technology.

Photo courtesy of Marble

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