Food Tech Startup Pantry Labs Taps RFID for Smart Vending Machine

Anybody who has searched for dinner in a vending machine at work or in a hospital knows how unappealing the typical choices of candy bars and snack foods can be. Using hyped-then-forgotten RFID technology, Pantry Labs has developed a smart refrigerator that makes fresh food available to consumers who can’t get to a restaurant or store.

There are dozens of food delivery startups but Pantry Labs has a slightly different take on food and convenience. Its refrigerator is designed to give cafeterias in hospitals, corporate campuses, and universities a way to offer fresh food, whether it’s salads or sushi, in off hours.

“The idea is to be able to sell food unattended at locations where people live and work—to bring fresh food closer to the people,” says co-founder and vice president of engineering Tony Chen. In its first installations, the company found that the busiest times are between 8 PM and 6 AM at hospitals, hours during which cafeterias are closed. The company, which has raised $1.3 million and went through the Lemnos Labs hardware incubator, now has customers in the Bay Area and is looking to expand into other regions, Chen says.

Pantry Labs’ refrigerator is equipped with a tablet and a credit card reader on the front. After the consumer swipes a card, the door opens so the person can take an item out. Once the food is removed, it automatically debits the credit card. The cafeteria can also remotely check on what’s been sold.

The enabling technology is an RFID reader embedded inside Pantry Labs’s hardware. It’s made by Woburn, MA-based ThingMagic, a company founded by MIT grads, which was bought in 2010 by navigation company Trimble.

About ten years ago, many people thought that RFID technology would enable the Internet of things. Initially, the killer app for RFID was in tracking goods moving through the supply chain: the idea was that palettes could be monitored to deliver better data on where goods are and avoid theft. But after some large companies, including WalMart, scrapped their projects, the industry came to a crashing halt, says ThingMagic vice president of business development Bernd Schoner.

The technology hasn’t completely gone away. In fact, analysts project that billions of dollars worth of RFID tags will be shipped this year. Retail has emerged as one of the most active areas, says Schoner. Sales people scan shelves or racks at the end of the day to see what items, such as clothes, have sold.

But now that much of the tech industry is focused on connecting everyday devices, whether it’s thermostats or food in refrigerators, RFID could pick up again, at least for some uses. Items that have an RFID tag on them can only report their status once they are within a few meters of an RFID reader. By contrast, an item that has a battery-powered WiFi or Zigbee wireless chip embedded can communicate directly to the Internet or a central hub, such as WiFi router.

But adding a wireless card, which needs a power source, to low-cost items makes no sense. That’s why Schoner believes that RFID will see more interest. “Smaller, cheaper objects will probably end up using RFID because it means objects don’t need to be powered and you can afford to put an active tag on them,” he says.

In the case of Pantry Labs, it chose RFID because it’s relatively cheap—the tags that go on food only cost 15 cents. Chen sees the company as part of a wave of Silicon Valley companies trying to marry technology and food. “The vending machine industry hasn’t had any innovation in dozens of years. It’s time to disrupt this industry,” he says.

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