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Tuesday 23 September 2014

The connected kitchen start-up poised to go global

Published 10/07/2014 | 00:00

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Ben Harris

Where is all the technology investment going these days? A glance at any industry journal shows a seemingly bottomless list of investors for software and online services. Stripe (€80m). Uber (€700m). Intercom (€17m). Code, it seems, is the magic sauce. But there are exceptions. Nest, the 'smart' home alarm system that Google purchased for $2bn late last year is a hardware firm. So is Oculus Rift, the gaming headset firm bought by Facebook.

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So is there hope for technology hardware entrepreneurs?

Dubliner Ben Harris may prove that there is. He is the first of an impressive list of young startup creators to come out of the accelerator program set up by Liam Casey, the China-based manufacturing magnate who is currently being touted as a pivotal figure between Silicon Valley's tech giants and their (largely Chinese) manufacturing operations.

His new company, Drop, is a 'smart' kitchen food measurement machine that's part of an iPad (and iPhone) system to simplify cooking and baking. For novices -- which is at least four fifths of kitchen users -- the device aims to bring 21st century nous to a process that has not been significantly improved upon for decades.

"There are very few technology hardware companies that come out of Dublin," he says. "We know that this is pretty unusual. We do all the design and development from here [an office in the IFSC] and then the marketing is being done out of San Francisco."

While the device is currently at pre-launch stage, it is completed and operational. Harris says getting to this point may not have been possible without the know-how of Liam Casey's accelerator program, Highway 1.

"We met Liam a year ago and he encouraged us in a big way. We were one of the first to be accepted into Highway One, which was just an amazing program. It lasted four months. Since then, we've been over to China four times. We did the design for Drop and they made it in the factory."

Crucially, this has all been possible on the relatively small capital budget of €250,000, made up in parts by Casey's PCH, Frontline Ventures and Enterprise Ireland.

"€250,000 is not a lot of money to design, develop and manufacture a finished hardware product," says Harris.

However, this is unlikely to be the last investment Drop sees: the company is expected to announce a "bigger" round of funding in the US shortly, according to Harris.

But why a smart food scales?

"The connected home space, and the kitchen in particular, have been completely overlooked for years," he says. "47pc of iPads are used in the kitchen. And the most used part of Pinterest is recipes.

Despite this, most recipe content is delivered in books that have barely changed in 20 years. So it's an area that has been ripe for innovation for a while.

Harris also has some pedigree, both in the food business and entrepreneurship. His mother, Elaine O'Hora, founded the Munchies chain of outlets in Dublin. His father, Peter Harris, also set up restaurants as well the courier company Pony Express. Harris, an award-winning designer in his own right, is joined in Drop by noted designers Tim Redfern, Johnny McCauley and Jack Phelan.

The Drop smart scales is the first in a number of products planned from Harris. But right now, the gadget's prospects look very good. The company is currently exploring retail routes, with promising discussions underway with large chains.

"This is really something to get people back into the kitchen making decent food," says Harris. "It's aimed at anyone who might consider buying a cook book. The app is free, so even if you don't buy the hardware, you'll get the advantage of high quality recipes from some of the best sources in the world.

"But we think you'll want to buy it. Because our recipe guidance is more accurate than anything else on the planet."

Is Harris worried about foodie snobbery when it comes to 'making things too easy'?

"I know what you mean. The cooking community is a very vocal one. But we don't want to make it an autonomous process. This is just as handy for professional chefs and restaurants, who want to more accurately oversee the way dishes are prepared, as it is for beginners in their home kitchen."

Harris says that an integral part of the system is the curated "recipe platform" which has content from Dublin, San Francisco and New York at present."We're also enrolling people to upload recipes in a curated way," he says.

Will Drop become Ireland's Nest? With Liam Casey backing the project, it shouldn't be ruled out.

 

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