The phrase “3-D printer” typically brings to minddevices that churn out plastic objects like jewelry, toys, hardware prototypesor even prosthetics. Now, a startup building a 3-D food printer, BeeHex, has raised $1 million in seed fundingto launch its first product, a pizza printer called the Chef 3D.
Initially, BeeHex wanted to develop a printer thatwould be able to make a variety of foods for astronauts on long missions inouter space. But the company’s cofounders– Anjan Contractor, Chintan Kanuga,Jordan French and Ben Feltner– have been adapting their original concept printertechnology for a commercial market that’s ready on Earth today. The printersuse pneumatic systems, rather than traditional additive manufacturingtechnologies, to move ingredients around.
Long-term, French said, BeeHex wants to create anetwork of printers that are capable of producing snacks or meals on-the-spot,tailored to the customers’ needs or wants. Customers would someday be ableto select their food through an app, or the BeeHex printers could makefood that correlates to their health needs, taking into consideration datatransmitted from internet connected medical devices or fitness-relatedwearables.
Food automation expert Jim Grote led the seedinvestment in BeeHex. Previously, Grote founded the Donatos Pizza chain of restaurants, which wereportrayed in a 2013 episode of Undercover Boss on CBS. The investorhas also been creating machines that speed food production– like the cutelynamed Peppamatic pepperoni slicer-and-applicator– since the late 1960s, andselling them through his eponymous business, the GroteCompany.
BeeHex CEO and cofounder Anjan Contractor says thestartup plans a soft launch, working with select pilot customers in the foodbusiness in 2017. It recently moved its research and development facilities toColumbus, Ohio, a region that is home to some 170 food and beveragemanufacturers, especially bakeries according to economic development office Columbus2020.
Contractor said, “Businesses want to provide foodpersonalization, and they don’t want to have to spend a lot on training newemployees to offer this.” A device like BeeHex’s 3D Chef would let businessesoffer tasty, fresh pizzas that are shaped like a favorite cartoon character forkids, for example, or that are gluten-free for celiac customers, withoutrequiring cooks to pick up specialized skills.
Investor Jim Grote tells TechCrunch that BeeHex couldbe a long-term profitable business just creating 3-D printing solutions forhigh-volume pizza restaurants, especially major chains like Dominos, LittleCaesars or PizzaHut. The pizza restaurant industry generates an estimated $43billion in worldwide sales annually, according to market research firm Packaged Facts.
The investor also said, “After pizza, thistechnology could be used for a wide range of foods. The company has masteredthe technology around dough, which is a real challenge. So it would makesense to expand into other baked goods, potentially.” Retailers andrestaurants who want to serve food to shoppers on site, or amusement parks andfestivals would potentially rather rely on 3-D pizza printers than otherequipment to bake pizzas traditionally, the investor suggested. Traditionalequipment 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 andcelebrations like Food Loves Tech 2016 and homecoming at Ohio State University. The Beehex Chef 3D will next appear at the International PizzaExpo March 27-29th in Las Vegas, the company says.