A brave new world: Connecting food to the smart kitchenby Stuart Pallister, EHL Hospitality Insights
Imagine a world where your food talks to the kitchen appliances. It may sound far-fetched, but apparently, the future may have already arrived. A company in the U.S. has raised a total of $43 million from investors to develop the connected kitchen – beyond appliances connecting to other appliances.
Eugenio Minvielle, the founder and President of Innit, says the missing element in the kitchen – the catalyst as it were – is the food.
“We definitely believe that the future of food is connected and clearly it will be connected once food is connected to all these things.” This, he says, goes beyond the ‘Internet of Things’ to the ‘Internet of Food’.
Minvielle established the start-up after running businesses internationally for Nestlé and Unilever for more than two decades. During his career he was responsible for hundreds of factories and says a great deal of information from food can be extracted in the factory or in the laboratory.
Innit has already put together a team worldwide, with researchers based in France. It may sound a little bizarre, but Innit’s mantra is ‘listen to your food’.
“Technology has evolved to a point that, through culinary science and understanding food, we can now take all that learning that we get in factories and really understand the way, the position and listen.”
“We’ve had a one-way conversation with food, so our unique proposition starts by listening and if we listen to our food then we will be able to connect to it. I did not want to build a food company with a little bit of tech, or a tech company with a little bit of food. That doesn’t work. We wanted to create a company that, from the beginning, was food and tech from the ground up.”
Minvielle was taking part in an innovation workshop held at EHL, along with the company’s co-founder and CEO Kevin Brown. While Minvielle comes from a food industry background, Brown has two decades of experience in building and running tech companies. Brown says putting food and tech together will bring innovation to the kitchen.
“If we look at all the other parts of our life that have been digitized – music, movies, photography, taxi cabs, all these old vertical industries – when digital platforms arrive, they use the information in new ways. For example Uber, they digitize the drivers and riders, and then they use algorithms and software to really create new interactions that are more valuable. And that’s exactly the opportunity in the world’s largest industry, which is food.”
Food waste costs the average U.S. family $1,500 a year, he says, and many people are struggling to manage their food.
So for Innit, which now has a partnership with U.S. appliances retailer Pirch, the idea is to create a GPS tracking system of sorts for food.
“If we can digitize the food in a very seamless way, we can then start to apply those algorithms and have a sort of GPS for food or GPS for your kitchen. So where people are connecting appliances to the Wi-Fi, we now connect that appliance to the food. So your red cabbage is talking to your refrigerator and your chicken is now talking to your oven. And so if you can have the food and this information really informs how you store it, prepare it, and cook it in more optimal ways.”
Image: Eugenio Minvielle
Beyond the possibility of sharing recipes, there are more serious practical implications with regard to public health, as real-time information about food could help prevent the outbreak of salmonella or other types of food poisoning.
“We are on a mission to improve people's lives and reduce waste”, Minvielle says. “In a factory today you can understand the breakdown of salmonella if it is coming, so you can stop it before it goes out the production line; you can stop a lot of things because you are connected to food, while food is being processed in a factory. It’s just incredible that this connection is not transmitted, that that experience is not transmitted for practical use with consumers.”
For his part, Brown says the task ahead for the company is ‘a little bit scary’, adding: “We had to take an industry that was moving very slowly and build a platform that could bring together the different parts of that industry and help digitize them”. They had been working in “stealth” for several years, creating a tech roadmap that will be relevant for years to come. In addition, they had also reached out to people in the industry.
“They said we want to be part of this journey for both the impact aspect of it, but also because building the operating system for the kitchen, building the platform that could really solve these problems and be in millions of homes, that’s a huge business opportunity. Because once you do that, once you can really be useful, it's just like GPS. It took a while to set up, but once you had it, now it’s in your phone, your car, your boat, it's everywhere. So it's a utility that can really service a lot of parts of the ecosystem.”
No other company has brought together all the pieces needed to “crack this problem”, Brown says.
“If you look at companies making equipment for the kitchen, they are investing billions of dollars in R&D and building Wi-Fi into appliances. By leveraging Innit’s platform, we could all provide more value for consumers.”
Speaking about entrepreneurship and risk-taking, Brown says you need drive and resilience, as well as “humility and a little bit of craziness”.
“You need to be crazy enough to jump in when you don't know all the answers. And then you need the humility to say: ‘hey, how can I assemble a team of people, where I’m really good at some things and I need to find people that fill in the rest?’ And sometimes you have to learn as you go. What are the key parts of that equation?”
“If you are relentless, you sharpen your vision, you drive toward something, and you build something that is brand new. You have to know that about yourself: is that something you can do? But if you can't, then just be brave. The new world is not about sitting in the same job for 40 years.”
Stuart Pallister is Editor-in-Chief of EHL Hospitality Insights and Associate Director of the Lausanne Hospitality Research Center.