Interview: Adapting The Home-Cooked Meal For The Convenience Market
Suvie's CEO and Co-Founder Robin Liss speaks to PSFK about IoT in the home and what the future of cooking might look like
PSFK founder Piers Fawkes sat down with Robin Liss, co-founder and CEO of Suvie, an IoT system that refrigerates and automatically cooks meals to have them prepared for people when they get home. In this excerpt from our PurpleList podcast, Piers and Robin discuss why IoT for the home has to go deeper than Wi-Fi and flashy screens, and how competing trends in food have given rise to an opportunity to rethink cooking.
Robin: If you look at meal consumption, meals eaten in the home is in, I believe, a very slight but broad decline over time. Specifically, if you zoom in on that, it’s meals cooked in the home.
People are eating a lot more steam table meals from the grocery store. They’re eating a lot more takeout and delivery. Then you have this other major trend, which has obviously been going on for even a couple decades now, which is people are becoming much more conscious of the food they’re eating.
The ironic part of this is, while people desire healthy cuisine, if you actually look at the numbers and the stats, it’s hard to see that people are eating healthier, because these two trends are working against each other.
People are eating for convenience more, but they aren’t really as able to control what they’re eating when they’re eating for convenience. They’re in this paradox, which is, they want meals quickly, conveniently, gourmet, high quality, but they also want healthy, wholesome, cooked-from-scratch food.
That’s the first trend. I’d say the second trend is obviously the move of technology and connected devices into the home. It’s interesting, because we have smart lights, we have smart thermostats, and we have basically a lot of, I would say, very level-one innovation, which is taking an LCD screen, and maybe one sensor, and putting it on existing technology.
The problem with that in the home appliance space is that there’s only so much you can do with adding a camera to a refrigerator or an LCD screen to an oven. It doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t dramatically change the interaction pattern.
Piers: On that point, I think we look at IoT, and the adoption of IoT in the home, and it doesn’t seem to have gone way past, as you said, smart thermostats, smart lighting. Maybe we’ll see smart locks, because there seems to be a need for locks, letting people in and out, and access. It doesn’t seem that much of a mainstream adoption of IoT in the home beyond the tech industry hype.
Robin: I think that’s because smart lights are cool and all, but unless you have 25 lights that you have to turn off every night, it doesn’t save you that much time. When we start thinking about what we want to build next, we think about how can we really change people’s lives?
I think this is where version two of IoT, or version two of the smart home, will be, which is, if the first five, eight or 10 years was put one sensor on something, put an LCD screen, put Wi-Fi connectivity into an existing piece of electronics or appliance, I’d say phase two is when those appliances start being rethought and refactored for that wireless lifestyle.
That’s where we think Suvie is truly cutting edge, because by combining cooling and cooking—and not only cooking, but multi-zone cooking—we’ve really built a kitchen robot that can transform people’s lives and is integral into the mobile experience.
In order to do that, we had to build a way to go from cooling to cooking. That required really rethinking the entire appliance. I like to joke, we had to think outside the box. Literally, the box, as in the standard dishwasher size, which is 24 inches wide, or the standard oven of 30 inches, or the standard refrigerator that’s counter depth.
In order to get to version two—or phase two, whatever you want to call it—level of time saving and life benefit, we had to really refactor some of those core functions. That’s what we’ve done with Suvie.
Piers: It’s interesting you call it a robot. Can you talk to me a little bit about what the insight or the motivation is there?
Robin: Google says a robot is, “a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by computer.”
Suvie takes raw food, stores it and refrigerates it, and then it cooks that food using different cooking modalities at different times and temperatures, and has a meal ready and waiting for you the second you go home.
I think that’s some pretty sophisticated series of actions. I think it definitely meets that. Frankly, it’s the best way to communicate quickly to people the benefit. It’s like having a kitchen robot. It maybe doesn’t have arms and legs, which is what people maybe thought kitchen robots would do, but it doesn’t need them.
Instead of moving the food around, Suvie changes the temperatures really dynamically in order to make a perfect meal—a gourmet, really savory, really awesome, balanced, wholesome meal.
Tell me a little bit about the bigger experience, or the bigger ecosystem happening here. Obviously, you have a machine that keeps things cool, cooks at the right time in a very sophisticated manner. I think there are plans for a bigger ecosystem of products, foods and stuff like that. Is that what you’re looking at, or is it just the cooker?
Yeah, absolutely. The appliance is just the first phase of it. The appliance pairs with prepared raw food that is optimized to cook in Suvie. Proteins come in vacuum sealed Suvie-ready bags with salt and pepper in there.
Vegetables come prewashed and precut. Sauces come in bags that they can be gently heated up in, and starches come in the right portions and can be poured into Suvie. All of those items have ID tags on them that the machine automatically detects, knows how long to cook them and at what temperature.
It’s really about building a whole platform ecosystem where the Suvie meal components work with the Suvie appliance. That’s needed. In order to make that leap to fully automated cooking, the appliance has to know what’s inside it and how to cook it. Those food items have to be optimized to the appliance.
It reminds me of something you said very early on, which was about how everybody knows that they want to eat healthier. There’s an interest in eating healthier. They have a perception about what the product, the final output should be, but they’re not really eating healthier at home. Partly because a number of things—time, access, ability to cook, as well—it seems to be that you’re trying to overcome that problem. I’ll use this word: “automated” cooking.
I think another big challenge you have here is that people want local food, just like what they see at their farmer’s market. One of the things that we did when we designed Suvie is we really forced ourselves to have food that could be packaged and cooked in packaging that required a relatively small capital investment for packaging equipment.
That’s super important, because we want you to be able to go to your local butcher and have them pack things that are Suvie-ready, or also go to your favorite national dry pasta brand, and they can pack for Suvie.
The whole idea here is creating a platform ecosystem that’s relatively open, and relatively accessible by both small and large players so that people can really get the food they want into the appliance. We obviously studied Keurig quite a lot when we built this company.
Keurig and Nespresso have both been around for a long time. Keurig goes back to the mid ’90s; I think Nespresso, even earlier than that. When you look at their strategies, they both initially were very closed systems. I think that provided some initial challenges for distribution.
We’ve embraced being a fully open system. That means that consumers can put their own food in Suvie, which obviously puts us at a little bit of a revenue risk. We think that some nights of the week, people will cook their own food in Suvie, and some nights of the week, they’ll cook our food.
It looks like you’re really going for the adoption of the products, rather than just trying to get every revenue dollar possible.
What we envision with Suvie one day is enabling our consumers to come up with their favorite recipes, publish them and help share that content.
Then also, for the recipes that are the most popular, we will go to our packaging and food partners. They’ll be able to take those recipes, and then make them available for anyone to purchase.
Somebody who has a really great beef stew recipe in the middle of the country might be able to design something that every Suvie user can have one day.
[Ovens are] very oddly used. They are huge. They take up a ton of space. For 364 days a year, people are using a quarter of their ovens, a tenth of their ovens. The amount of space you use to bake cookies in an oven is like two inches of height or something.
That oven is designed for one day a year, Thanksgiving. You can’t sell an oven in the United States if it can’t fit a turkey. If we can rethink form factors of appliances, you can really start to think about changing things.
For example, micro apartments might not have full kitchens. It would be a perfect opportunity for people to have Suvie in their micro apartment, where maybe they aren’t cooking a lot and they don’t want to warm up their oven.
New Yorkers who use their oven as a sweater drawer or something might use Suvie. We have this dream of an advertisement where we put a Suvie on top of an oven, like a big oven, and just have a picture of it. We’re like, “Which one are you going to use more, Suvie or your big oven?”
Do you dream that Suvie and like-minded, smart-cooking devices would replace the oven?
I’m not going to venture to say that. I don’t think that’s likely in the next 10 to 15 years, because consumer habits are changing, but millennials are eating differently. I think there has to be a rethinking of the way that they can do home-cooked meals.
It might not be what we think of as the traditional kitchen. Because kitchen appliances, especially in the United States, are built into kitchens, they’re incredibly locked in their form factor.
We are thinking about how that home is going to change physically and functionally as well. I think there’s a lot of hesitation, or maybe there’s friction right now in terms of the change of the structure of the home.
Maybe a tastemaker needs to actually develop, what does a kitchen look like in the future? In the same way the great room was an invention created at one point, or the lawn was created—it was an invention that suddenly everybody adopted. I feel something like that has to happen within the home now. Suddenly, there’ll be a tipping point in wide, mainstream demand for a new way of living.
What I’d like to say is I think that too often, new interfaces or slapping an LCD screen and a sensor on something gets disguised as innovation. I guess it’s innovation, but being here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where neighbors are working on curing cancer or Parkinson’s, when you’re a consumer-oriented startup, you start to think big.
There are certainly challenges to rethinking things in the way we have, but personally, for my second startup, I wanted to do something revolutionary. I don’t think changing a software interface on an existing product is revolutionary, but I think a kitchen robot that can save people five, six, seven hours in a week, that’s pretty revolutionary.
Especially for women, which is why I’m really excited about this. Suvie’s definitely for people of all types, men and women, but the data says that women spend, by far, a significantly greater portion of time in the kitchen, and take on the bulk of meal planning and prepping responsibility. If we can save people time, it’s going to be pretty impactful.
Tell me a little bit about the Kickstarter campaign.
The Kickstarter campaign will be launching in early February. We are not announcing the discount, but we will be giving significant discounts to early backers who believe in us. We think it’s a really great platform for innovation and input.
We’ve raised a significant amount of money already through investment, and we’ve been at this for two and a half years. It’s not like we’re just putting our first idea on Kickstarter. We’re pretty far along, but we still want to have a super passionate group of consumers who can help us think through the meals that we produce, who can help us think through all of the different software interfaces.
There are a lot of ways that we can build a better product by having really passionate and involved backers. We’re going to be going up on Kickstarter soon here, and offering some very aggressive early backer discounts to help launch the product.
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Walter de Brouwer is the founder and CEO of Scanadu, a NASA Ames Research-based company with the mission of putting the diagnostic power of a hospital in the hands of the consumer, modeled after the fictional tricorder once imagined in Star Trek. Walter is a Belgian-born technology entrepreneur. He started Scanadu in 2010 after a life-altering family emergency. His goal is to build a suite of smartphone-esque medical tools that reimagine access to healthcare for the people. Prior to Scanadu, de Brouwer ran One Laptop Per Child Europe and founded Starlab. His companies were involved in two IPOs and the merger of Eunet with Qwest Communications (now CenturyLink).