Late last year, one of Croatia’s biggest packaged food conglomerates, Podravka, invested in a robotic home chef startup called GammaChef.
It’s an interesting move for such a storied company. Podravka, which was founded in 1934, started as a fruit factory before eventually becaming nationalized as part of Yugoslavia in 1947. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, Croatia gained independence and soon the company was privatized. Now, nearly 80 years after its founding, the company has invested in its first startup, a robotic home cooking company.
The investment made me want to learn more about GammaChef and hopefully figure out why one of Croatia’s longest-running food companies was interested in consumer cooking robots. I recently caught up with GammaChef’s CEO, Dražen Drnas. Below is my interview edited slightly for readability.
Can you tell me more about the investment by Podravka?
Drnas: Podravka is one of the leading food companies in the SouthEast, Central and Eastern Europe. Unfortunately I can not disclose the financial details but it was in terms of standard seed rounds. This seed round with Podravka is for us more than just a financial investment; it is also a strategic partnership. Podravka is going to actively support GammaChef project with its R&D and know-how. They are also involved in design of disposable food cartridges and ingredients needed for preparing meals in Gammachef.
Is the product mainly for Croatia, or do you have plans to distribute/sell in rest of Europe or USA?
Drnas: The product is planned for a global market. Since Croatia is part of EU, we will probably target EU first. The US market is also in our plans.
Tell me more about the product.
Drnas: GammaChef is robotic chef capable of preparing any one pot meal. At its core is a digital recipe. Based on that recipe, GammaChef will prepare you fresh, homemade and tasty meal at any desired time. It is capable of preparing risottos, pasta, gnocchi, stews, soups, any meal prepared in one pot.
Basically, it follows the steps of a real human chef, adding right amount of ingredients at the right time. It also controlls other parameters of cooking, like stirring and setting temperatures.
It is not a closed machine, you can digitalize your own recipe simply by switching the robot to TeachMe mode, cook your favorite dish on GammaChef and save it. Later you can share it with your friends and they can have your authentic meal prepared your way on their GammaChef.
The Robotic chef will come with some digital recipes, but also you can download new recipes or whole cookbooks from our store, it will be some kind of ‘Kindle for cookbooks’. It is fully connected via WiFi, so it can be controlled by your smartphone or even Amazon Echo. It has some handy features like personalised taste (more or less salt or spices) or calculation of calories intake.
What about pricing and availability?
Drnas: We still don’t have the final price, but our calculations and plans are setting a price within the price range of a better kitchen appliances, it will not cost more than some good quality oven. We are planning to start with first pilot series next year and later go into serial production.
Robotic cookers haven’t taken off. We haven’t really seen one that really works well. How will the Gammachef differ?
Drnas: Yes, robotic cookers are a new category of devices, not many companies even tried, so far none have really delivered. Unlike some other robotic cookers, we chose somewhat different and more pragmatic approach. GammaChef is designed more like a household appliance, and not like a humanoid robot. That makes it less costly, easier to put in your kitchen, and sometimes less scary.
Also, functioning of GammaChef does not depend on food delivery of prepared ingredients. Yes, we are planning to have food cartridges with our partner, but also you can refill the containers with your own food and cook your favorite recipe. That means we are not constrained and limited with logistic problems of profitable food delivery worldwide in the first phase.
And the final and most important thing, GammaChef is cooks tasty meals. We ran a test where we invited to a cooking contest between the robot and good human chef, after the blind test of meals, shrimp risotto made by robot won human made risotto by 12:6 in votes.
We believe it is time to bring 21st century into our kitchens, but our approach is not to dehumanize kitchen by filling it with automatization like some car factory. We need a pragmatic approach that is going to help us eat healthier. We believe our solution will enable working families to eat homemade meals together. That will unload part of the burden from our working moms like the washing machine did. But also a device that will unleash our creativity, there is no reason why you couldn’t have your favorite grandma’s stew prepared just in time when you come home from work.
What is your background? Do you have someone (maybe you) who is the robotics lead/expert helping to design?
Drnas: Me and my cofounder Đulijano Nola are both electronics engineers. We’ve been playing with electronics and robots since late 80’s. Later we switched more to software development. We have entrepreneurial experience in setting up and running digital companies. We built some successful products like Gohome.eu, a real estate search engine and CrnoJaje.hr, the no.1 daily deal site in Croatia. For the GoHome project, we raised VC investment for expansion into EU market.
We are both amateur chefs and since we are passionate about technology almost as we are passionate about food. We started building a robotic chef almost for fun as a side project in our free time. When we managed to build the first prototype and discovered how well GammaChef cooked, we decided to go full speed in that direction. When we see how well people are reacting to the food and to the robot, we’re convinced we are on the right track.
To achieve our vision, we’ve continued to build out our team. We’ve added a small agile team of software developers, mechanical engineers, designers and chefs helping the design.