Motivation. Preparation. Choice. Time. They’re all factors that go into cooking, and reasons why people opt to eat out or turn to less healthy options. It’s why there are big market segments devoted to making cooking easier, dating back from the microwave to the food delivery and meal kits that have emerged in recent years.
A group of Baltimore-area engineers are looking to add a new entrant that takes an approach at the appliance level: SueChef. It contains both a freezer and oven that uses robotics and AI to prepare meals — no human hands required.
The founding team of Max Wieder, Edward Holzinger and Clayton James formed a Sykesville-based company called Counter Intuitive Cooking Inc. (CICI) after hitting on the idea in late 2017. The Johns Hopkins alums have teamed with two contractors to build and understand the market since late 2017. Now they have the plans in place for the final production version.
To raise $50,000 to build the SueChef, they recently launched an equity crowdfunding campaign through WeFunder. CICI also became the latest company to join the Maryland Neighborhood Exchange platform, created locally last year by Community Wealth Builders to galvanize local investment in new local businesses.
Wieder said the idea is to offer an additional tool that will allow for the sorts of quality and nutrition that comes from something one would cook in the oven, while also the convenience of not needing to touch it: The appliance both stores multiple meals that could be purchased from partner food companies in a freezer, and then moves it to the oven and cooks it. And with internet connectivity, it can be powered with software through a phone or voice app, which uses AI to learn preferences both for meals and times. A person doesn’t need to be present or decide for a particular meal, making it different from cooking that could still be done with conventional kitchen tools.
“We’re not trying to replace your oven,” Wieder said. “We’re trying to augment it. We’re trying to help save you time.”
To get there, they’ve drawn on a host of existing technologies. Wieder works a contractor for NASA, so he has an up-close view of how the space agency has developed aerospace technologies (think aerogel and insulation) that can now be applied for everyday home cooking. The “puzzle,” said Wieder, has been to fit the materials together in as small a size as possible. The result is a machine that’s about the same height as cabinets, and as wide as a toaster oven.
When it comes to the business, they’re also designing for cost. While specific prices aren’t finalized, they’re aiming for the product to be less than $1,000, and no more than $8 a meal on average. They plan to partner with food companies that could provide the meals, and CICI has a recurring revenue model since there’s a continuous need to buy meals.
They also plan to have impact built into the model, as a portion of the sales will go toward meal donation at a local nonprofit. That made it appealing for the Neighborhood Exchange, which looks to get local backing for businesses that in turn help the community.
“The MD Neighborhood Exchange is passionate about investment crowdfunding because it enables local businesses to ensure community residents can benefit from their growth and success,” said Community Wealth Builders’ Stephanie Geller, who runs the Exchange. “We are especially eager to support community-focused businesses like CICI, which has pledged to donate a meal for every meal sold on its website to help feed the hungry in Maryland.”
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