Back in 2019, Benson Tsai decided to attend a food robotics conference. The engineer had spent the last five years working for Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, applying what he had learned about battery technology as a member of the technical staff for electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors to space travel, but now he had a vague idea of launching a new startup that builds food robots.
At the conference, he watched a panel on investing in robotics that featured venture investor Avidan Ross, the founding partner at Root Ventures. The two struck up a conversation and hit it off, and those early conversations led to Ross becoming Tsai’s first investor.
In those early days, Tsai thought maybe he’d build an Asian food robot, mostly because he loved Asian food. Eventually, though, he’d settle on another type of food: Pizza.
“I ended up looking at what made sense to automate,” Tsai told The Spoon in an interview this week.
Tsai got to work on his robot, hiring about 30 or so SpaceX engineers in the process. He’d also raise lots more money beyond the initial $9 million investment led by Ross’s Root Ventures, the most recent being a $16.5 million funding round led by Jay-Z’s Marcy Ventures.
Four years and over $25 million in investment later, Stellar Pizza‘s food robot is ready for action and, over the past few weeks, has been serving pizza on the campus of USC. The robot heads to campus in a sprinter van, where students order pizza using the Stellar Pizza app.
I asked Tsai if he’s serving food from his robotic mobile food truck, and he answered yes, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I really enjoy going out in the field,” said Tsai. “I spent a lot of time working on the crazy robots, and now I get to see people bite into the pizza, and it’s really fulfilling.”
Tsai says so far, things are going pretty well. The Stellar Pizza van rolls onto campus five days a week, and already he’s seeing lots of return customers.
“We’re at 45-50% return customers,” said Tsai.
I asked him what the long-term vision is for the company and if he plans to license the technology to some of the bigger pizza chains. He told me that may be in the cards in the future, but for now, he’s happy building an end-to-end robotic pizza company.
“Nothing is off the table, but right now, we’re chasing the vision of Stellar Pizza, specifically just selling pizzas because, for one thing, building hardware that can make 100 different pizza recipes is actually quite hard. So we’re dogfooding and building our own brand, and if that’s successful, maybe we’ll chase that.”
Tsai and his company have come a long way from those early days when he first attended that conference back in 2019; Stellar’s first product is in the field and happy customers coming back for more.
Oh, and that first conference? It was The Spoon’s Articulate, the first-ever food robotics conference.
If you’d like to hear Tsai tell the story of building his pizza robot, sign up for The Spoon’s next food robotics event, the Food Robotics 2023 Outlook, a virtual conference taking place next Wednesday.