MooBella’s Revamped Ice Cream Machines Debut at MIT After $18M Financing Deal
MooBella was having no trouble finding people willing to try out its make-your-own ice cream machines last week at MIT. If only designing market-ready versions of the machines—which are now more than a decade in the making—were as easy. Xconomy got the inside scoop recently on how MooBella has spent the last couple of years reengineering the machines to overcome some major design and functionality flaws that have blocked the commercial rollout of the ice cream factories on wheels.
The Taunton, MA, firm showcased test versions of its machines—which enable people to use a computer touch screen to order up to 96 different ice cream varieties made fresh within 40 seconds—at the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT in Cambridge, MA last week. (And yes, I saw in person how the machine whipped up my own scoop of low-fat cake batter ice cream with crushed cookies and cream. It was tasty.)
The company, which is planning a full commercial launch either late this year or in early 2010, has been busy lately. It announced the closing of an $18 million Series A round of financing from W. Health LP, a venture fund managing by Inventages Venture Capital, last week. (The deal was classified as a first-round financing, even though MooBella has raised previous rounds of capital, because the business was recently reincorporated.) The plan is to use the money to manufacture 100 of its machines for places such as university and hospital cafeterias in New England over the next six months.
While stand-alone machines have made soft-serve ice cream for a long time, machines that can churn out fresh scoops of hard ice cream haven’t become mainstream—and MooBella has been working to change that since the business was founded by entrepreneur Paul Kateman under the name Turbo Dynamics in 1992. After a couple of bumps in the road, perhaps most notably a failed joint venture with General Mills in the mid-1990s, the business appears to be finally closing in on a commercial launch.
The proof was on display at the MIT conference. The company’s Ice Creamery machines, which are about the size of a large refrigerator, appeared to be working as advertised by MooBella. Chief technology officer Steven Moysey, who last spoke with Xconomy in August 2007, shortly after his hiring, filled me in on the engineering overhaul the machines have undergone to be ready for the market.
While MooBella had already been testing prototype machines for years prior to his arrival at the company, “The design was not sufficiently robust for volume production,” says Moysey, a former engineer and executive for firms such as Bose, Boston Scientific, and Gillette. “It employed too many custom built circuit boards, too many air cylinders, too much wiring, and it really wasn’t a scalable design in terms of its approach. We essentially scrapped [the previous design] and started again.”
The current design came together through a confluence of engineering and marketing expertise over the last couple of years, Moysey says. A key factor was the beginning of a partnership between MooBella and Idex, a Northbrook, IL, company that has expertise in fluid management systems. The relationship began after an Idex engineer named Sam Ford saw a story about MooBella in a national magazine in 2007. Idex has engineered machines used in retail stores such as Home Depot and Lowes that automatically mix colors into paints to provide customers with the exact tints that they want. Ford was convinced that this expertise in fluid management could help MooBella clear some hurdles that it had faced.
Moysey and his engineering team, including fluid management experts at Idex, replaced the pneumatic control systems and air cylinders in the old design with electric stepper motors, making the machines much less noisy than previous versions, which he says sounded like vacuum cleaners. They also switched from Linux to Windows in the computer that runs the machines; adopted a modular design that enables easier production and maintenance; and replaced a corrosive coolant with a non-corrosive coolant in the refrigeration system, according to Moysey. But the firm has kept the proprietary freezing system for turning the ingredients in the machine into ice cream.
MooBella has contracted with Idex to manufacture the machines and provide technical support for the units once they are in the field. The new capital the company recently raised will pay for the deployment of 100 machines in locations around New England. The plan is to lease the machines to food services vendors for $400 per month and sell them all of the ingredients for making the ice cream, according to David Peters, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. A scoop of the ice cream will cost customers about $2.85. The machines do not have a vending component, so customers pay for the ice cream like any other food item they purchase in venues such as cafeterias.
At least at MIT last week, people were flocking around the MooBella machines to catch a glimpse and even sample the product. If the company is right about people wanting to use the machines to make their own ice cream, it could claim a nice share the $60 billion annual market for ice cream around the globe.