This is part one of a two-part interview with Venki Ayalur, one of the founders at Blendid. You can read part two.
Venki Ayalur had the Blendid concept in his mind for 20 plus years. As Blendid’s Chief Technology Officer, he’s the architect behind Chef B, Blendid’s smoothie-making robot.
“I know Vipin was thinking about the Star Trek Replicator, but I had a different motivation. Let’s say it started with my stomach,” Venki says with a laugh. He’s a happy guy who is often seen smiling around the office.
“When you leave home, you miss the kind of food that was served at home. I left India and while I was excited about coming to the United States, I didn’t realize I would be leaving my mother’s cooking behind. It hit me when I started searching for a dish she made, Keerai Molagootal and I couldn’t find it anywhere in Chicago. I tried so many dishes, but none of them were as good as what my mother would make.”
This is a highly relatable problem for anyone who’s left home and but had fond memories of the good food left behind. When Venki realized no matter how hard he searched, he wasn’t going to be able to find what he wanted, his mind started to work. “I realized that each person’s recipe is unique to them and over generations, as the recipe is passed down person to person, the individual uniqueness of a recipe is lost. It’s kind of like how someone’s musical creation is unique and couldn’t be captured perfectly until we created a way to record it,” Venki says
You can imagine the food you want, but you just can’t get it.
“I wanted to create a machine that could make the recipe exactly like my mom. It wouldn’t tinker with the recipe, it would make it the same every time,” he said. “There were several years where I sat with the idea but I didn’t know how to make it happen. I was waiting for the technology to evolve that would help me solve my problem.”
As robotics started to progress, Venki got excited. He bought a robot and converted his garage into a kitchen. The challenge was using the hardware, in conjunction with the software, to get the robot to take the steps needed to prepare food.
“The challenge was converting a recipe into a machine-readable form and then play it back in a way that was consistent and reliable. I was able to get it to make a couple of Indian dishes and I was thrilled. It wasn’t the cleanest process, but it was working!” Venki’s enthusiasm is obvious. “Just as I was having success, Vipin shared his vision of a replicator with me and we started working together.”
A food-making robot does more than just make food.
With the Indian dishes working, the two started to think about what they could create that would serve a market. The market that interested us was blends, or smoothies. The idea of delivering a product that met the needs of today’s mobile society – that delivered nutrition – got them excited. They knew this was an early application that would be successful, setting the stage for other ways to deliver “food automation.”
“This is just the beginning of what we can do. It looks simple, but the problem is actually complex,” Venki explains. “We have to know how to put the whole system together to make it deliver while looking lively. That’s the power of the software and the hardware relationship. Then add artificial intelligence and we have work to do!”
Come back tomorrow to find out what’s involved when programming Chef B to make those delicious blends.