All posts in “Hardware”

Taste test: Burger robot startup Creator opens first restaurant

Creator’s transparent burger robot doesn’t grind your brisket and chuck steak into a gourmet patty until you order it. That’s just one way this startup, formerly known as Momentum Machines, wants to serve the world’s freshest cheeseburger for just $6. On June 27th, after eight years in development, Creator unveils its first robot restaurant before opening to the public in September. We got a sneak peek…err…taste.

When I ask how a startup launching one eatery at a time could become a $10 billion company, Creator co-founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas looks me dead in the eye and says, “the market is much bigger than that.”

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Here’s how Creator’s burger-cooking bot works at its 680 Folsom Street location in San Francisco. Once you order your burger style through a human concierge on a tablet, a compressed air tube pushes a baked-that-day bun into an elevator on the right. It’s sawed in half by a vibrating knife before being toasted and buttered as it’s lowered to conveyor belt. Sauces measured by the milliliter and spices by the gram are automatically squirted onto the bun. Whole pickles, tomatoes, onions and blocks of nice cheese get slices shaved off just a second before they’re dropped on top.

Meanwhile, the robot grinds hormone-free, pasture-raised brisket and chuck steak to order. But rather than mash them all up, the strands of meat hang vertically and are lightly pressed together. They form a loose but auto-griddleable patty that’s then plopped onto the bun before the whole package slides out of the machine after a total time of about five minutes. The idea is that when you bite into the burger, your teeth align with the vertical strands so instead of requiring harsh chewing it almost melts in your mouth.

If you want to be the first to try it, Creator is selling early access tickets at 10am Pacific today. Otherwise it will be open for lunch Wednesdays and Thursdays until the public launch. Eventually, an app will let people customize the exact ratios of all the ingredients, unlocking near infinite permutations.

For now, the startup’s initial pre-set burger options include the classic-style Creator vs. The World with a mole Thousand Island special sauce, the oyster aioli Tumami Burger designed by Chef Tu of Top Chef, The Smoky with charred onion jam and the sunflower seed tahini Dad Burger from Chef Nick Balla of Bar Tartine.

The taste of each is pretty remarkable. The flavor pops out of all the fresh-cut and ground ingredients that lack the preservatives of pre-sliced stuff. The patties hold together as you munch despite being exceedingly tender. And afterwards I felt less of the greasy, gut-bomb, food coma vibe that typically accompanies scarfing down a cheeseburger.

“This is the kind of burger you would get for $12 to $18 [at an upscale restaurant], and it’s $6,” says Vardakostas. It might not be the best burger I’ve had in my life, but it’s certainly the best at that price. A lot of that comes from the savings on labor and kitchen space afforded by a robot cook. “We spend more on our ingredients than any other burger restaurant.”

The CEO wouldn’t reveal how much Creator has raised, but says it’s backed by Google’s GV, frequent food startup investor Khosla Ventures and hardware-focused Root Ventures. However, SEC filings attained by TechCrunch show the startup raised at least $18.3 million in 2017, and sought $6 million more back in 2013.

It’s understandable why. “McDonald’s is a $140 billion company. It’s bigger than GM and Tesla combined. McDonald’s has 40,000 restaurants. Food is one to the top three biggest markets,” Vardakostas rattles off. “But we have a lot of advantages. The average restaurant is 50 percent bigger in terms of square footage.” Then he motions to his big robot that’s a lot smaller than the backside of most fast-food restaurants, and with a smile says, “That’s our kitchen. You roll it in and plug it in.”

From flipping patties to studying physics

Creator co-founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas

What you want in a founder is a superhero origin story. Some formative moment in their life that makes them hellbent on solving a problem. Vardakostas has a pretty convincing tale. “My parents have a burger joint,” he reveals. “My job was to make several hundred of the same burger every day. You realize there’s so much opportunity not taken because you don’t have the right tools, and it’s hard work.”

Robots and engineering weren’t even on his radar growing up in the restaurant in southern California. Then, “when I was 15 my dad took me to a book store for the first time. I started reading about physics and realizing that this could be a possibility.” He went on to study physics at UC Santa Barbara, got to work in the garage, and finally drove up to Silicon Valley to machine the first robot prototype’s parts at the famous Silicon Valley TechShop.

That’s when he met his co-founder and COO Steve Frehn. “Steve told me he was from Stanford and I was super intimidated,” Vardakostas recalls. But the two had a great working rapport, and a knack for recruiting budding mechanical engineers from the college. Momentum Machines started in 2009, was a full-time garage project by 2010, incorporated and joined Lemnos Labs in 2012 and the startup began to make serious progress by 2014.

In the meantime, other entrepreneurs have tried to find a business in food robots. There was the now-defunct Y Combinator startup Bistrobot that haphazardly spurted liquid peanut butter and Nutella on white bread and called it a sandwich. More recently, Miso Robotics’ burger-flipping arm named Flippy made headlines, even though all it does is flip and cook patties on a traditional griddle. “We have an arm that pulls out the burgers, but that’s probably 5 percent of the complexity” of the full Creator robot run by 350 sensors, 50 actuators and 20 computers, Vardakostas scoffs.

Breaking burger behavior

The CEO’s past in the kitchen keeps Creator in touch with the human element. He tells me he thinks the idea of a staff-less restaurant where you order on a computer sounds “dystopian.” In fact, he wants to give his food service employees access to new careers. Vardakostas says with a sigh that “people look at restaurant work as a charity case, but man, we just need a chance.” Referring to the old Google policy of letting employees try out side projects, he explains how “Tech companies get 10 percent time but no one does that for restaurant workers.”

“Something we got really excited about in 2012 and we’re just starting to execute on is reinventing the job of working in a store like this, where the machine it taking care of the dirty and dangerous work,” his co-founder Frehn explains. “We’re playing around with education programs for the staff. Five percent of the time they’re paid just to read. We’re already doing that. There’s a book budget. We’re paying $16 an hour. As opportunities come up to fix the machine, there’s a path we’re going to offer people as repair or maintenance people to get paid even more.”

One tradition Creator couldn’t escape was French fries. Vardakostas says they’re basically the least healthy thing you can eat, noting they’re “worse than donuts because there’s more surface area exposed to the frier.” But chefs told him some people simply wouldn’t eat a burger without them. Creator’s compromise is that burgers are paired with hearty miniature farro or seasonal veggie salads by default, but you can still opt for a side of frites.

Creator’s fate won’t just be determined by the burger robot and the people who work alongside it. The startup will have to prove to fast food diners that it can be just as quick and cheap but a lot tastier, and that they’re welcome amongst the restaurant’s bougie Pottery Barn decor. At the same time, it must convince more affluent eaters that a cafeteria-style ordering counter and low price don’t mean low quality. Oh, and the name is a bit rich for a burger spot.

For now, Creator won’t be licensing out its bot or franchising its restaurant, though those could be lucrative. “I don’t want someone putting frozen beef in there or charging way more,” says Vardakostas. Instead, the goal is to methodically expand, and maybe take advantage of its petite footprint to move into airport terminals or bus stations. “We want to get out of San Francisco,” Frehn confidently concludes. “Our business model is pretty simple. We take a really good burger that people like and sell it for half the price.”

Meet Atoms, the minimalist startup shoes you’ll actually wear

Step aside, Allbirds. Atoms come in quarter sizes you can mix-and-match. Emerging from stealth today in a TechCrunch exclusive, this shoe startup’s obsession with satisfaction allowed it to replace my Nikes. I’ve spent the last 2 months wearing Atoms every day. They’re the first sneaker classy looking enough for semi-formal occasions, but that I can comfortably walk or even hike in for hours.

Here’s how Atoms is modernizing the footwear experience:

  • Pick your quarter size, say 10.25, and Atoms sends you 10s, 10.25s, and 10.5s, plus socks
  • Try them on and pick any two, even different sizes for different feet, and send the rest back free
  • No logos. Atoms come in jet black, pure white, or black top/white bottom, but don’t stick an ad on your feet
  • Copper threads inside eat bacteria, preventing funky smells
  • Elastic laces with subtle oval eyelets let Atoms slip on but stay tight so you rarely have to tie them
  • Get a discount on your next pair if you send in your old Atoms for analysis and donation

Image via Jeff Macke

At $179, Atoms are pricier than $100 lifestyle Nikes or $79 Allbirds. But the basketball shoe giant just sells in half sizes, while Allbirds offers only whole sizes that fit few perfectly. The right quarter-size Atoms for each foot makes them feel molded to your body.

“To make shoes better, you need to know why people wear shoes” Atoms co-founder Waqas Ali tells me. People buy fancy dress shoes they never wear, yet feel embarrassed by the childish designs and branding on most sneakers. We perfected Atoms for your everyday routine — walking, standing, and commuting” he explains, “You are a person not a billboard, so there’s no logo”.

That hasn’t stopped the shoes from going viral during their beta testing phase. Everyone who tries them on seems to rave about them. That’s driven 4000 people to sign up on the Atoms waitlist which you can join to be first in line. Atoms launch this summer in the U.S., with the first wave of customers getting their shoes in late June/July.

The Big Bang

Husband and wife duo Waqas and Sidra Ali started their first shoe company Markhor in Okara, Pakistan back in 2012. They attacked the market with one of the best qualities you can find in an entrepreneur: curiosity. Instead of coming in with preconceived notions, they traveled the world to research how people actually wear shoes. “You might assume that ‘Oh in Italy, everyone wears leather shoes’, but the young people there were all wearing sneakers” Waqas recalls.

After launching a Kickstarter, the Alis came to Silicon Valley to go through the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator in Summer 2015. There, they drilled into more customer research and product design.

Comfort and style were the big deciding factors in most sneaker purchases, so that’s where the couple wanted to differentiate. They discovered that over 70 percent of people have at least a quarter-size different feet, and over 7 have a half-size discrepancy. So why don’t other shoe company offer quarter sizes? “They make tons of different shoes” Waqas says.

Suddenly, the two guiding principles of Atoms aligned. By designing just a single unisex model in a limited set of colors, it could make quarter sizing scalable while stripping away all the goofy extra fabrics and patterns. 35 percent of customers already take two different sizes. That breakthrough attracted $560,000 in seed funding from LinkedIn’s ex-head of growth Aatif Awan and Shrug Capital.

But Atoms is determined to avoid being labeled a Silicon Valley shoe. Rather than coders, the company wants creative types like painters and graphic designers to be its early adopters. The vision is to create a sneaker a head chef could wear all night in the kitchen without hurting, but that look elegant enough that they could stride into the chic dining room with confidence.

The Future Of Footwear

“Most shoes in the market that claim they’re comfortable are only comfortable when you try them on” Waqas laments. Take that other shoe startup Allbirds. They’re super soft and made of wool, and the first steps feel like you’re wearing cloud slippers. But walk 10 blocks and you’ll find the bendy bottoms don’t protect you much.

That’s why Atoms hired 18-year veteran of the shoe business Sangmin Lee who’s worked with Adidas and Puma out of Portland and South Korea. He prototyped tons of different versions for Atoms. The result is a strong but light outsole on the bottom with indents cut out for anti-slip traction and to reduce weight. Meanwhile, the upper’s tough mesh material breathes but holds its shape, and refuses stains.

Image via Adam Bain

“Shoe companies say they use sustainable materials but you go to the factories and everything is falling apart” Sidra tells me. Organic materials sound nice but can break down too quickly. “The way we make our shoes environmentally friendly is that they last long” Waqas says with a laugh.

Two months of tough wear later, my Atoms are holding up great. The foamy mid-sole has frayed a tiny bit in the front like many shoes. And the knit materials ingrained some dust when I went camping in them that needed some brushing to get out. But they’ve succeeded in becoming my go-to shoe I can chill, work, and play in.

Now Atoms is trying to build more commerce innovation to turn buyers into lifetime wearers. It’s working on a special pattern for the insole that will rub off based on where you put your weight. The idea is that when people send their old pairs in for a discount on the next, it can analyze that insole pattern to improve the shape of future models.

One day, Atoms hopes to create a completely personalized shoe shopping experience. It hopes to actually give you slightly different insoles with more or less arch support depending on how you wore the last ones. And it’s planning early access to new color combinations and laces for repeat buyers.

Atoms will need loyalty in case the shoe giants come out with their own minimalist, quarter-sized sneakers. Such a limited set of colors and single style mean plenty of people will simply find them ugly or outside their taste. And no, they’re not a great fit for the gym or with a suit. But if you want understated, durable shoes you don’t have to think about, Atoms excel.

The startup must rely on its nimbleness and a flawless customer experience if it’s going to gain a foothold in a business dominated by brands with huge ad campaigns and brick-and-mortar distribution. One thing it’s thankful to its shoe startup competitor for is that “Allbirds has shown the world is not just ruled by Nike and Adidas”.

Luckily Atoms has strong differentiation in a world of interchangeable sneakers. “I thought quarter-sizing was a joke or gimmick until I tried the 10.25s” one customer said. “How will I go back to a 10.5 when 10.25 fits so well?” Personally, there hasn’t been another tech or startup product in the past 10 years beyond Apple’s AirPods that has cemented itself so deeply into my daily life.

“There’s no way to hack shoes” Waqas concludes. “You just have to make a good shoes.”

LifeDoor crowdfunds the production version of its fire-thwarting door-closer

At CES in January I was pleasantly surprised by the LifeDoor, a smart home gadget that’s actually worth having. These little boxes automatically close doors when smoke detectors go off, inhibiting the spread of fire and smoke. The company is heading to KickStarter to fund the production version of the device, which has several improvements over the prototype I saw.

The simplicity and practicality of the device made it a standout at a show flooded with useless junk; the small team essentially made a gadget that automatically does what firefighters all insist you do: close the door in case of fire. That can be hard to remember to do or enforce, but the LifeDoor makes it so you don’t have to do either.

Installation, on any standard door hinge, shouldn’t take longer than a minute or two. It doesn’t detect smoke or heat, but rather lets your smoke detectors and other gadgets do that — instead, it listens for the beep when smoke is detected, and quickly (but gently) shuts the door against the threat. It’ll then light up and sound its own alarm in case you didn’t hear the first or the door muted the noise.

The version I saw was fully working, but was 3D printed and the team was still making improvements. The production device is only about two thirds the size of the prototype, which wasn’t too big to begin with. The new enclosure should help with detecting alarm signals as well. The microphone subsystem also will now sit idle unless it hears something, saving power and allowing the LifeDoor to go for up to two years on one battery.

Right now they’re looking to raise $50K on Kickstarter — they’re going for a little under $100 each as perks. My guess is all the backers so far are firefighters. I can say honestly that if I had an actual house I would buy a couple of these things in a second. I’ll leave myself open to accusations of shilling here because unlike most smart home knick-knacks, this one is more than useful — it could save lives.

This box sucks pure water out of dry desert air

For many of us, clean, drinkable water comes right out the tap. But for billions it’s not that simple, and all over the world researchers are looking into ways to fix that. Today brings work from Berkeley, where a team is working on a water-harvesting apparatus that requires no power and can produce water even in the dry air of the desert. Hey, if a cactus can do it, why can’t we?

While there are numerous methods for collecting water from the air, many require power or parts that need to be replaced, what professor Omar Yaghi has developed needs neither.

The secret isn’t some clever solar concentrator or low-friction fan — it’s all about the materials. Yaghi is a chemist, and has created what’s called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, that’s eager both to absorb and release water.

It’s essentially a powder made of tiny crystals in which water molecules get caught as the temperature decreases. Then, when the temperature increases again, the water is released into the air again.

Yaghi demonstrated the process on a small scale last year, but now he and his team have published the results of a larger field test producing real-world amounts of water.

They put together a box about two feet per side with a layer of MOF on top that sits exposed to the air. Every night the temperature drops and the humidity rises, and water is trapped inside the MOF; in the morning, the sun’s heat drives the water from the powder, and it condenses on the box’s sides, kept cool by a sort of hat. The result of a night’s work: 3 ounces of water per pound of MOF used.

That’s not much more than a few sips, but improvements are already on the way. Currently the MOF uses zicronium, but an aluminum-based MOF, already being tested in the lab, will cost 99 percent less and produce twice as much water.

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With the new powder and a handful of boxes, a person’s drinking needs are met without using any power or consumable material. Add a mechanism that harvests and stores the water and you’ve got yourself an off-grid potable water solution going.

“There is nothing like this,” Yaghi explained in a Berkeley news release. “It operates at ambient temperature with ambient sunlight, and with no additional energy input you can collect water in the desert. The aluminum MOF is making this practical for water production, because it is cheap.”

He says that there are already commercial products in development. More tests, with mechanical improvements and including the new MOF, are planned for the hottest months of the summer.

Women’s Safety XPRIZE $1M winner is a smart, simple panic button

Devices like smartphones ought to help people feel safer, but if you’re in real danger the last thing you want to do is pull out your phone, go to your recent contacts, and type out a message asking a friend for help. The Women’s Safety XPRIZE just awarded its $1 million prize to one of dozens of companies attempting to make a safety wearable that’s simple and affordable.

The official challenge was to create a device costing less than $40 that can “autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert while transmitting information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds.”

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Anu and Naveen Jain, the entrepreneurs who funded the competition, emphasized the international and very present danger of sexual assault in particular.

“Women’s safety is not just a third world problem; we face it every day in our own country and on our college campuses,” said Naveen Jain in the press release announcing the winner. “It’s not a red state problem or a blue state problem but a national problem.”

“Safety is a fundamental human right and shouldn’t be considered a luxury for women. It is the foundation in achieving gender equality,” added Anu Jain.

Out of dozens of teams that entered, five finalists were chosen in April: Artemis, Leaf Wearables, Nimb & SafeTrek, Saffron, and Soterra. All had some variation on a device that either detected or was manually activated during an attack or stressful situation, alerting friends to one’s location.

The winner was Leaf, which had the advantage of having already shipped a product along these lines, the Safer pendant. Like any other Bluetooth accessory, it keeps in touch with your smartphone wirelessly and when you press the button twice your emergency contacts are alerted to your location and need for help. It also records audio, possibly providing evidence later or a deterrent to harassers who might fear being identified.

It’s not that it’s an original idea — we’ve had various versions of this for some time, and even covered one of the other finalists last year. But they haven’t been quantitatively evaluated or given a platform like this.

“These devices were tested in many conditions by the judges to ensure that they will work in real-life cases where women face dangers today. They were tested in no-connectivity areas, on public transit, in basements of buildings, among other environments,” explained Anu Jain to TechCrunch. “Having the capability to record audio after sending the alert was one of the main differentiators for Leaf Wearables. Their chip design and software was also easy to be integrated into other accessories.”

Hopefully the million dollars and the visibility from winning the prize will help Leaf get its product out to people who need it. The runners up don’t seem likely to give up on the problem, either. And it seems like the devices will only get better and cheaper — not that this will change the world on its own.

“Prices will come down as the sensor prices drop. In many countries it will require community support to be built,” continued Jain. “These technologies can act as a deterrent but in the long term culture of violence again women must change.”