The phrase “3-D printer” typically brings to mind devices that churn out plastic objects like jewelry, toys, hardware prototypes or even prosthetics. Now, a startup building a 3-D food printer, BeeHex, has raised $1 million in seed funding to launch its first product, a pizza printer called the Chef 3D.
Initially, BeeHex wanted to develop a printer that would be able to make a variety of foods for astronauts on long missions in outer space. But the company’s cofounders– Anjan Contractor, Chintan Kanuga, Jordan French and Ben Feltner– have been adapting their original concept printer technology for a commercial market that’s ready on Earth today. The printers use pneumatic systems, rather than traditional additive manufacturing technologies, to move ingredients around.
Long-term, French said, BeeHex wants to create a network of printers that are capable of producing snacks or meals on-the-spot, tailored to the customers’ needs or wants. Customers would someday be able to select their food through an app, or the BeeHex printers could make food that correlates to their health needs, taking into consideration data transmitted from internet connected medical devices or fitness-related wearables.
Food automation expert Jim Grote led the seed investment in BeeHex. Previously, Grote founded the Donatos Pizza chain of restaurants, which were portrayed in a 2013 episode of Undercover Boss on CBS. The investor has also been creating machines that speed food production– like the cutely named Peppamatic pepperoni slicer-and-applicator– since the late 1960s, and selling them through his eponymous business, the Grote Company.
BeeHex CEO and cofounder Anjan Contractor says the startup plans a soft launch, working with select pilot customers in the food business in 2017. It recently moved its research and development facilities to Columbus, Ohio, a region that is home to some 170 food and beverage manufacturers, especially bakeries according to economic development office Columbus2020.
Contractor said, “Businesses want to provide food personalization, and they don’t want to have to spend a lot on training new employees to offer this.” A device like BeeHex’s 3D Chef would let businesses offer tasty, fresh pizzas that are shaped like a favorite cartoon character for kids, for example, or that are gluten-free for celiac customers, without requiring cooks to pick up specialized skills.
Investor Jim Grote tells TechCrunch that BeeHex could be a long-term profitable business just creating 3-D printing solutions for high-volume pizza restaurants, especially major chains like Dominos, Little Caesars or Pizza Hut. The pizza restaurant industry generates an estimated $43 billion in worldwide sales annually, according to market research firm Packaged Facts.
The investor also said, “After pizza, this technology could be used for a wide range of foods. The company has mastered the technology around dough, which is a real challenge. So it would make sense to expand into other baked goods, potentially.” Retailers and restaurants who want to serve food to shoppers on site, or amusement parks and festivals would potentially rather rely on 3-D pizza printers than other equipment to bake pizzas traditionally, the investor suggested. Traditional equipment uses a lot of energy and takes up a lot of real estate.
BeeHex’s machines are not widely distributed yet, but pre-production prototypes have made appearances at conferences and celebrations like Food Loves Tech 2016 and homecoming at Ohio State University. The Beehex Chef 3D will next appear at the International Pizza Expo March 27-29th in Las Vegas, the company says.