The ability to apply precision heat to food and drinks is a quick-evolving — and pretty darn exciting — area of the digital kitchen innovation. And no one is pushing more boundaries in this space than Clay Alexander. He’s the founder and CEO of Ember, a company which makes smart mugs which can exactly control and maintain the temperature of your tea or coffee. And that’s just the beginning; he’s applying his precision heating tech to everything from kitchen plates to baby bottles to medical supplies.
We’ve been fans of Ember for a while and can’t wait to have Alexander speak at the Smart Kitchen Summit (SKS) in Seattle this October! To pique your interest, we asked him a few questions about the future of heating technology in the kitchen — and for Ember.
This interview has been edited for clarity and grammar.
You have an impressive background in entrepreneurship and innovation, specifically in lighting. What inspired you to pivot to heating and create the Ember mug?
I had just sold my LED light bulb to GE which was a major career milestone for me. I was sitting in the kitchen with my wife having breakfast, thinking of what I wanted to do next. I still had my lighting company Radiance (which I still own today) but my wife and I were contemplating if we should take some time off and travel or stay in Los Angeles. It was then that, as usual, my scrambled eggs got cold. I’m a talker and can rarely finish a meal while it’s still warm. I had a spark and wondered why, in this day and age, my plate could not keep my food warm, and my cup could not keep my coffee hot.
It was my ‘ah ha’ moment if you will, and I decided to start developing a prototype to see if I could solve this problem. As an inventor, the drive to always be creating is very strong. It’s innate. So, we put the vacation on hold and I got to work. Seven years later, we launched our first product and Ember was born.
How are you leveraging technology to improve your product?
As a serial inventor, I’m always exploring how we can improve our product. A couple ways we do this is by listening to our customers and reviewing our app data. For example, we heard that many customers wanted a longer battery life on our Travel Mug, so we listened, and we are working on that for the next version, so people can enjoy their tea or coffee even longer.
What’s next for Ember? Are you applying your heating tech to anything beyond mugs?
Absolutely. With temperature control, the possibilities are endless. We’re exploring numerous categories where we can apply our technology across several verticals. Currently we’re developing the world’s first self-heated baby bottle, which we think will be a massive game-changer for new parents.
What advice do you have for food tech entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
This is advice I give all entrepreneurs: If you have an idea for a product, you should first create a prototype and start testing it. Even if you make it from used parts found in your garage and duct tape, you need to get a working model built and start using it. That’s how I started Ember. I built a prototype in my house and tested it over and over again to see how I could improve it. You can’t just read or talk about something, you need to take action. Build, test, improve, rebuild, repeat.
Food and beverage heating is an area that’s spurring a lot of innovation lately. Where do you see the future of heating, as it fits into the realm of food and drink?
This is really an exciting time for innovation in the home and kitchen space. I think we are just scratching the surface as people become more comfortable with technology in the food and beverage area. At Ember, we envision a day in the near future where all your dishware will keep your food at the perfect serving temperature: bowls, plates, serving ware, and so on. Through heating and cooling technology, we want consumers to be able to control the precise temperature for everything they eat and drink. Eventually, it will become second nature.
What’s the biggest thing (be it a trend, piece of technology, idea, consumer behavior, etc.) you see disrupting the future of food and cooking?
I think one of the biggest trends is how technology is disrupting the entire food chain in the home. Whether preparing food or enjoying it, we are going to see a lot more digital tools working to bring more joy and ease into your daily routine in the kitchen. A couple current examples of this are the June oven and the Jura coffee machine. These products take the complications and labor out of food prep: you can press a button and go. Ember does the final step, letting you enjoy your food and drinks without needing to get up and constantly re-heat them. In the kitchen, we’ll have more appliances that just do things for you and enhance your life.
Thanks, Clay! If you want to see him speak more about how heating and cooling tech will come to shape the way we cook, eat, and enjoy our food (and beverages), snag your tickets to the Smart Kitchen Summit on October 8-9th in Seattle.