Japan’s Connected Robotics (CR) first made waves in Tokyo’s food tech space with its ballsy launch of OctoChef, a robot that serves hot octopus balls. This Tokyo-based firm has also turned heads with its “Reita robot” — a cartoonish blue bear that whips up cones of soft ice cream. Reita’s cuteness is somewhat diminished, however, by a robotic arm protruding right out of the bear’s very own mouth; a design some would describe as… unbearable.
Still, products like these at Connected Robotics have helped the company get its hands on almost $8 million in Series A funding. So has the management’s pledge to deploy those funds into its ongoing research and development of automated dishwasher systems, hot snack vending machines, and a robot called Lorraine able to rustle up a fully fried breakfast in bed.
Leading the round was the robotics-savvy, yet ever-so-slightly-spookily named Global Brain Corp, which announced its investment in Connected Robotics this week alongside the 31VENTURES Global Innovation Fund, the UTokyo Innovation Platform, the Sony Innovation Fund — and accelerator group 500 Startups. That now takes investment in Connected Robotics to a total of $8.74 million.
But before anyone finds anything awkward about investors getting too keen on octopus balls, rest assured: these have nothing to do with cephalopod genitalia. In fact, octopi don’t even have balls per se. Most males mate using a bewilderingly dextrous sexual tentacle designed to safely impregnate much larger and more powerful females who are sometimes prone to gobbling up their sexual partners in a passionate bout of cannibalism.
Anyway… back to OctoChef, which makes what are known in Japan as “Takoyaki” — diced octopus meat, rolled up with green onion, pickled ginger, and tenkasu, before being battered, fried and served with a variety of sauces as a tasty midnight snack. The clever bit for robotic technology like this is not how its arms take bits and pieces in and out of the oven; rather, it is the combination of deep learning and the computer vision components. That is the ability of the robotics to react to sensors at different points of the cooking — being able to “see” when the octopus has been sufficiently diced or cooked. And for its software to be able to interact with human workers or customers.
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“They are deploying collaborative robots,” says Dr. Susanne Bieller, who is the General Secretary of the International Federation of Robotics. Referring to her federation’s position paper, she describes how robots like Connected Robotics’s have been deployed in restaurants rather than factories over the last few years, and require distinct and sophisticated approaches when interacting with people. She notes how robotics like these in the food and beverage industry are still a tiny minority of global robot orders, but they are on the rise. The annual average growth rate of F&B orders between 2012 and 2017, she says, was 15%; China and the US are the two largest markets for robots in F&B, she says, while Japan only ranks fourth so far.
Connected Robotics itself “has such an advanced development of cooking robot technology,” says Global Brain CEO Yasuhiko Yurimoto in a statement. Elaborating on Global Brain’s decision to invest, Yurimoto said that “we recognise their high marketability,” which is an important facet in a country that has long produced interesting robotics designs, only to fail to send them worldwide — a disappointment described in Japan’s New Robot Strategy as a “Galapagos Effect,” where diverse and interesting products only flourish domestically.
Yurimoto, and other investors, also pointed to a need for the “alleviation of the shortage of human resources in the food and beverage industry and beyond.” This particular thinking is acute in Japan, a country of low birthrates and ageing demographics, which looks with wariness at the idea of immigration to fill labor gaps. It has a long tradition of accepting robotics in the food industry, in tune with other aspects of life, ranging from robotic pets and robo elderly care to robo sex partners. In food, sushi, for example, has been made robotically in factories here by companies like Suzumo Machinery Company on a large scale since the 1980s, a foodtech innovation that both democratized and globalized sushi, while sparking perennial ‘man-versus-machine’ debates about who makes the better sushi.
Connected Robotics CEO Tetsuya Sawanobori also sees the importance of better working conditions as a driving force behind his company. “I actually worked at a restaurant after graduate school,” he recalls in a statement sent to AFN this week, “but my health broke down within a year due to overwork from the long hours and heavy manual labor.”
“This firsthand experience has made me determined to bring about relief to those in the kitchen by replacing simple and heavy work with robots.”
Might other consumer-facing brands automating the food service industry be similarly determined and similarly capable? Perhaps not so many will also try out serving octopus balls. But dishwashing, hot snack vending machines or breakfasts? That is very possible, if not happening already globally. Dishcraft, for instance, already has a high-volume dishwashing robot of its own.
For now, however, a lot of robotics companies in the food tech space are carving out specific niches. Companies like Truebird, Cafe X, Alleycorp, Briggo, and Ratio are sticking to hot beverages. Sunnyvale-based Blendid still has its Chef B at work mixing smoothies for $6. Chowbotics still has robotic Sally focused on, as her name implies, tossing salads. Zume, Spyce, and Pazzi all have their work cut out with their robotically made pizzas. And Creator’s Rube Goldberg machine is still in the business of flipping burgers along with companies like Miso Robotics. Adding to an already bubbling mix, Bloomberg reported last October how Haidilao and Panasonic have been teaming up to create their own a robot hot pot restaurant with plans for thousands more.
In a signal, meanwhile, of how some robotics companies are using automation to be job creators, not job displacers, there was also one pop-up cafe in Japan where people with disabilities like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neuron disease, were able to work in a cafe with the help of robots designed by Ory Lab Inc. That cafe, however, has since closed.