Lynette Kucsma wants to sell the 21st century’s version of the microwave.
The “Foodini”—an automated meal-assembly machine that creates homemade meals faster and more efficiently than human hands—is the first product by Natural Machines, Kucsma’s company.
Natural Machines is marketing the Foodini as a 3D food printer. That sort of futuristic branding may scare consumers from the supremely out-there concept. Kucsma’s not worried, though.
“When people first heard about microwaves they didn’t understand the technology, but now 90% of households have microwaves,” she says. “We see the same thing happening with 3D food printing, but on a much faster scale because we adopt technology faster and the technology advances faster.”
In reality, the Foodini isn’t a 3D printer, per se. 3D printers generally run at one speed and handle a single ingredient: plastic. The Foodini is programmed similarly, but offers multiple speeds and works with numerous ingredients at the same time. The box-shaped contraption is approximately 17 inches wide, 18 inches high and clocks in at 33 pounds.
Natural Machines’s first iteration of the Foodini works best for time-consuming projects like pasta, elaborately shaped breads and cookies. Users first select a recipe from the touch screen or send their own to the Internet-connected machine. They then make the individual components of the dish from scratch and put the components into Foodini’s stainless steel ingredient capsules. From there, Foodini whips up dinner.
If the user is making a recipe for ravioli, for instance, the Foodini prints the bottom layer of dough, the filling and the top dough layer in subsequent steps. It reduces a lengthy recipe to two minutes construction time and ensures that no one has to clean a countertop caked with leftover dough and flour.
Version 1.0 can’t cook or heat food, but Kucsma expects to add those features in future Foodini models. She also anticipates food companies making ready-to-print items, so users can skip the ingredient prep stage entirely.
Foodini will go on sale in the mid-2015. “The demand is so high that we’re thinking about rolling out 1,000 machines for our first run,” says Kucsma. The device costs $1,300 and will be available online. Kucsma is initially targeting chefs, but says she’s also been in talks with both corporate retailers and food manufacturers (non-disclosure agreements prevent her from providing company names and details). Kucsma says the food industry is embracing the technology. “They are asking us how this will impact their market and are getting involved quite early to figure out how to get engaged with it.”
She adds that culinary professionals see it as a tool to unlock creativity, not as their replacement. “We’re trying to reinvent food experiences, so what [Kucsma] is doing with using technology to change foods fits right into our wheelhouse,” says New York City caterer Peter Callahan, who has thrown events for President Obama and corporate clients Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch and Kate Spade. Callahan plans to purchase a Foodini—and he feels the device’s appeal extends beyond the restaurant kitchen. “[Kucsma] is pricing her machine so it can be purchased by a home cook,” he says. “I could see it being in a lot of houses."
Inventor Alex Lightman has been advising Natural Machines and sees tremendous potential for the hardware to be in any space-crunched cooking space—including airplanes. “People would want to fly on the first airline that uses it because they won’t have to have airline food,” says Lightman. “And ten years from now, if you talk about airline food as a bad thing, people will look at you strange and say that airline food is fabulous.”
Other large-scale institutions like sports stadiums, transportation hubs and school cafeterias could use it to turn their plastic-tasting offerings into something more gourmet, says Lightman. “Think about someone going to Harvard. If you’re paying that much for tuition, you don’t want to eat crap food.” (Lightman would know; he attended Harvard.)
Interestingly, Natural Machines is based in Spain. After a career working at several startups and as Microsoft’s public relations manager for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Kucsma followed her husband to Barcelona when he took a new job in 2009. She formed Natural Machines—and the company now has 20 employees scattered across the globe.
Some are working for little or no pay. “To date, we've been bootstrapping the company,” says Kucsma. The initial $800,000 in capital has come from the founders (Kucsma started the company with its CEO Emilio Sepulveda and entrepreneurs Alex Moreu and Rosa Avellaneda) and from loans. Natural Machines has secured another $1 million in financing and is looking for an additional $5 million from investors. Later this year, Kucsma plans to relocate to Los Angeles to establish a five-person U.S. base for the operation while keeping company offices in Barcelona and China.
As Kucsma envisions it, one day everyone will be able to tap a button on their smartphones when they head home to tell their Foodini to get to work. By the time the user arrives home, there will be hot, fresh ravioli—or whatever else strikes a user’s fancy—waiting. “We are a food manufacturer, shrunk down for everyone’s personal taste,” she says.