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

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 about 10 percent of their founding equity. (Conrad and Zelman say they aren’t yet able to reveal who’s backing the accelerator financially.)

The main goal of the Lemnos Labs curriculum is to help companies with hardware ideas build working prototypes that they can show to investors interested in providing seed or Series A funding, says Conrad. Among other things, that means helping the startups avoid common pitfalls in the design process. “There is a lot that can go wrong in hardware, and we pride ourselves on making sure that our companies are going to look at everything, from the really technical stuff from designing for manufacturability and Underwriters Laboratories approval all the way up to what their packaging and instruction manual going to look like,” he says.

Here are brief reports on the four Lemnos Labs companies, based on their demo day presentations.

Blossom Coffee

A great cup of coffee isn’t just about the beans, says Blossom co-founder Jeremy Kuempel. It’s also about the brewing process. “We are able to brew the best-tasting coffee in the world because we control how it is brewed,” he says.

The Blossom Coffee prototype

The Blossom team, which includes mechanical engineers with backgrounds at places like Apple, Tesla, BMW, and NASA, has designed a tabletop single-serve coffee maker with an adaptable brew chamber whose temperature and pressure is computer-controlled to extract the most flavor from the particular variety of coffee bean being used.

“Every bean requires its own brew parameters to taste exactly right,” Kuempel says. Users of Blossom’s machine can download the right parameters from the company’s website. “We are bringing the Internet to coffee brewing, and it’s going to be amazing.”

Blossom plans to sell its machines first for use in cafes, then offices, then homes. It’s starting by approaching specialty coffee brewers like Ritual Coffee. “The response from baristas everywhere has been phenomenal, for the simple reason that our coffee tastes better,” Kuempel says.

Momentum Machines

At a typical McDonalds, at least four employees are assigned to make hamburgers. Vardakostas says Momentum Machines’ prototype hamburger-making robot can get rid of three of these humans and all of the overhead costs (training, unemployment, worker’s compensation, etc.) that go along with employing them.

The prototype Momentum Machines hamburger-making robot

The prototype is a miniature assembly line, with one conveyor that carries patties through a gas grill and another that deposits lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles atop a bun. All the ingredients come together at the machine’s exit chute, which even wraps up the finished burger in paper. Everything is modular, so that parameters such as cook times, the selection of condiments, and the thickness of the beef patties can be swapped out depending on a restaurant’s menu. Vardakostas says such a machine would have been too expensive to build a few years ago, but that the company is benefiting from advances in areas like sensor technology and DC motors.

Momentum Machines hopes to install machines in five hamburger joints in 2013 and 1,500 by 2017. While the device won’t be cheap, it will pay for itself rapidly, Vardakostas says. “We think it would be hard to compete if you don’t have a robot,” he says.

Local Motion

Clement Gires, who co-founded Local Motion two years ago at Stanford University, says “the big problem we are trying to solve is that local mobility is huge, messy, and broken.” One third of all trips in the United States are less than five miles, yet 99 percent of them are made in cars burning gas in internal combustion engines. Local Motion is building “mobility networks” consisting of both fleets of electric vehicles, and the software needed to deploy them intelligently; it’s marketing these networks first on corporate campuses such as the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

The Local Motion prototype vehicle's dashboard (iPad included)

Some 30 million people in the U.S. work on corporate campuses, university campuses, and military bases, Gires observes. The company’s prototype four-seater vehicle is designed to help people get around those campuses, or make short trips to and from campus, for less money than companies would spend on shuttle buses or car sharing. (Local Motion’s vehicles can be operated for 12 cents per mile, which is one-third the cost of renting a Zipcar and one-tenth the cost of operating a campus shuttle service, Gires says.)

The company’s software platform is just as important as its hardware. The system senses where a vehicle is, how many people are on board, and “builds a graph to connect people, places, and events,” Gires says. The goal is to enable users to go online shortly before a trip and locate and reserve the nearest vehicle, while coordinating with others heading the same direction.

“You want a campus to be a vibrant place of communication, exchange, and creativity,” Gires says. To enable that, “people need to feel empowered to move around during the day, not just sit at their desk. Building a real mobility network will change the perspective people have on their local environment. We think that’s the biggest value we can bring to the market.”

Unplugged Instruments

The founders of Unplugged Instruments, Andrew Penrose and Ari Atkins, are both graduating from Stanford this week. They’re both longtime guitarists, and Atkins says looking at innovations like the iPhone highlighted just how little the electric guitar has changed in the last 50 years. “You need big amps and bulky effects pedals, so most of the time your instrument is stuck at home,” he says. “Our solution is the unlimited electric guitar. It feels and plays like a classic electric, but it has a built-in amplifier and iPhone app.”

Unplugged Instruments co-founder Ari Atkins

The speaker in the Unplugged Instruments’ prototype is where the sound hole would be in an acoustic guitar. Plug the instrument into our iPhone and download the Unplugged Instruments app, and suddenly you can play along to songs downloaded from iTunes, or turn on effects like delays, or take lessons, or record your own music (which you can then upload to Facebook and other social platforms). “It just expands your experience so much beyond what any other guitar can do,” Atkins says.

Unplugged Instruments, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, hopes to bring its first guitar to market by March 2013 at a price of around $350. Atkins thinks it will appeal to a “huge number of people,” given that there are 20 million guitarists in the U.S. alone, who buy 2 million guitars every year. “The big manufacturers like Fender and Gibson have been making phenomenal guitars for 60 years, but they haven’t innovated since the 1950s, and nowadays these classic setups can’t keep up,” Atkins says. “People want a more affordable solution.”

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

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