Hamburgers, Coffee, Guitars, and Cars: A Report from Lemnos Labs

6/12/12Follow @wroush

Maybe your fallback plan in case your Silicon Valley startup goes bust was flipping burgers at McDonald’s? Well, you might want to rethink that. Even this classic refuge for low-skilled workers is about to be taken over by robots, if Momentum Machines has its way.

Momentum is one of four startups emerging this summer from Lemnos Labs, a new accelerator for hardware companies in San Francisco. At the Lemnos demo day on June 6, Momentum showed off its prototype hamburger-making robot, which is expressly designed to displace two to three full-time kitchen workers, thus saving fast-food companies up to $90,000 per franchise per year, or $9 billion nationwide. In a matter of minutes, the machine can grill a beef patty, layer it with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions, marry it with a bun, and wrap it up to go. (I saw it with my own eyes.)

“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” said co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

Lemnos Labs' garage space on Bluxome Street

At Lemnos Labs, the rapid-iteration, rapid-growth, conquer-the-world mindset typical of Silicon Valley software startups is meeting the world of hardware. You might not think that the startup accelerator model that’s been so successful for Web and mobile startups like Airbnb, Dropbox, or Heroku is applicable to the world of actual machines, which are, after all, a little harder to revise than products made from pure code. But you’d be wrong. After a 14-week course of business training and product development, the four inaugural Lemnos Labs startups shared pitches worthy of any startup at Y Combinator, TechStars, or 500 Startups.

In addition to restaurant automation, the Lemnos companies are exploring areas like street-legal electric shuttles for corporate campuses (Local Motion), a new generation of electric guitars that take advantage of the smartphone revolution (Unplugged Instruments), and helping baristas brew the perfect cup of coffee (Blossom Coffee). Along with their peers at other specialized accelerators, such as Rock Health, Greenstart, and Media Camp, these entrepreneurs are trying to prove that a rapid-iteration mindset and a focus on customer needs can help almost any kind of technology startup get off the ground.

“Silicon Valley has gone through waves of innovation, and we really think hardware is the next one,” says Jeremy Conrad, an MIT mechanical engineering graduate who co-founded Lemnos Labs last year with fellow MIT alum Helen Zelman. Conrad, a former Air Force officer, cites a range of trends to support his belief, include the falling cost of electronic components and rapid prototyping tools. “Capabilities like 3D printing that used to take an entire Fortune-500-company lab and tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, we can now have in our garages,” he says.

Lemnos occupies its own garage on Bluxome Street, a wide alley between Townsend and Brannan Streets in San Francisco’s SoMa area. It’s outfitted with a variety of machine tools and industrial equipment—but for much of their more challenging prototyping work, startups can simply decamp to TechShop, the high-tech workshop about five blocks away. Companies admitted to the program receive $50,000 in return for … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • TK3

    All these ideas sound like they could work in the real marketplace, not counting government regulation/interference, and I wish them luck.

    “III%”

  • James Robert Deal

    Fast food companies will automate whether worker wages are raised or not, and corporate profits will rise. The demand for workers is multi factoral. Automation will lower the need for minimum wage workers, but workers with more money to spend will increase the need for minimum wage workers. Humans will always be needed in face-to-face jobs. Businesses can adapt by raising prices. Workers have no way to adapt. In 1968 the minimum wage was worth $10.69 in today’s dollars. The poor make less than they made 46 years ago. They should have have to bear the burden to maintain business profits. Wages at the bottom must be raised. The issue is how much and how quickly. Do you believe there should never be an increase in the minimum wage? Do you disbelieve in the whole minimum wage concept? You have been hanging out with right wing Republicans too much. Fortunately, there are some Republicans who believe in paying people enough so that they are not dependent on welfare. Wall Mart pays low wages by mooching off government. Mike, you do very well on health issues, but on the minimum wage issue, your approach lacks nuance. Why do you say nothing about the poor quality of fast food? You are a natural food and natural health advocate. Why would you be supporting low wage employers so unquestioningly? http://jamesrobertdeal.org/minimum-wage/

  • CT Yankee

    James Robert Deal — No I do not believe in Minimum Wage! It is an artificial construct forced on the economy, and ultimately one doomed to failure. As you noted the comparison to 1968 dollars is one of the MW’s weaknesses. It always invites a comparison, but that comparison is *ALWAYS* incomplete. to wit: How much did a Smartphone cost in 1968 dollars? What about Cable TV?

    In 1968 most businesses were closed on Sundays… Why? Religion? Or just the slower pace of life? Just say’in…

    FWIW, I don’t pay my employees minimum wage, it would be an insult to their skillsets. However, I expect a lot more from them than any MW employee could ever be expected to provide. But, should I want to hire an extra pair of hands to perform some menial task, I must evaluate the burden of paying that person over $10/hr (including the cost of taxes & benefits) vs skipping that task altogether. Guess what; the job goes unfilled.

    That’s the ‘beauty’ of the Minimum Wage! It keeps me from ever having to interact with unskilled, low-skilled, and inexperienced workers. It provides a convenient barrier that lets my human resources people only deal with people that have somehow managed to ‘acquire experience’ at someone else’s expense. I let Walmart & McD’s train kids at government expense until they boil over with resentment, and then hire them at the low end of my scale because their minds are indoctrinated with the concepts of ‘entitlement’ until they either succeed or fail miserably, and move on to the next company, because this is the age of ‘Failing Upward’.