Bisi bele bath is a traditional and popular dish in Bangalore – rice, lentils, vegetables, and spices in a pot. To get it right, you need to semi-cook the carrots, peas, and beans, mix them in with semi-cooked rice and lentils, and bring the whole to a composite finish. The aroma of spices popped in hot oil and added to the pot will make your neighbors sniff the air and smile.
Bahubali Shete, a gadget geek in Bangalore who is also a weekend cook, has cooked bisi bele bath a few times. His routine was to call out to his wife Asha for directions. Now a smartphone app linked to a smart knob on his stove can talk him through this dish or any other recipe pulled from the internet. You can also feed your favorite recipes into the app.
We’re following the trail of Alexa and Echo.
Called Klove, it can replace the knob of a common gas stove or oven. It has sensors to monitor what’s cooking, and is connected to the internet. Its accompanying AI-powered app can parse through recipes and use Amazon’s Alexa to interact with the user by voice.
It can also combine with Amazon’s Echo speaker to avoid using a phone which requires you to be within 5 feet. In the kitchen, it’s more convenient to speak to the Echo which has a range of 20 feet.
Klove goes live on Indiegogo in a few hours. Early adopters get a discounted price of US$29. It will retail at US$39.
Shete, the creator of the smart knob, is first targeting the US and European markets, where Alexa and Echo can be used with Klove. So the first use cases are more likely to be pan-seared salmon or a paella than bisi bele bath or biryani.
“We’re following the trail of Alexa and Echo, which will arrive in India by year-end. So in 2018, we’ll be in India as well,” Shete tells Tech in Asia. Alexa is still mastering accents in India and other Asian countries.
Sold his earlier startup to Motorola licensee
This isn’t Shete’s first venture. His earlier #startup Connovate also dabbled in internet-enabled products using embedded systems. A popular device was the coin-sized Gecko, which could go into a keychain and help you find a lost phone. It could also trigger the smartphone to play music or take photos with gesture control.
This early internet-connected product launched on Indiegogo in 2013 and won support from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniac, who quipped: “I contributed to this – useful as well as prankful.” It was the first major crowdfunding success for a gadget from India, raising US$135,000 against an initial target of US$50,000.
Hong Kong-based Binatone, a licensee of Motorola, acquired Connovate for its internet-enabled devices. Shete stayed on to help convert Connovate products into Motorola ones. When that stint ended last year, it was time to start up again.
IoT (internet of things) had become a buzzword by then, as new possibilities emerged with advances in smartphones and AI. For Shete, it was old wine in a new bottle.
He had specialized in industrial automation for his engineering course three decades ago. Then he worked on a series of automation projects for large enterprises in the US, Europe, and India.
“Unmanned factories were built even in the last millennium,” he says. “It’s coming out now as IoT, but sensors and actuators for automation were there. I did that 20 years back.”
His first foray into entrepreneurship was to import computer numeric control (CNC) machines, and refurbish them for sale at affordable prices in India.
Shete’s innovation with new age tech began with a valet parking robot in the US, called Galaxy, in collaboration with Boomerang Systems. It’s still running, but a joint venture did not pan out and he moved on to Connovate, and now Klove.
His vision of a smart kitchen
The idea of a smart home is not new, and there are devices to control lights, blinds, thermostats, and so on. Kitchen appliances are also coming out with voice-control features. But these typically require the user to issue commands to preheat an oven, set timers, and so on.
One of the newest ones is Tasty One Top from media site Buzzfeed. It’s linked to a Tasty app which has over 1,700 video recipes. The One Top cooktop can automatically adjust temperature and power settings to match recipe instructions. It’s priced US$149 and starts shipping in November.
Where Shete’s breaking new ground is in the use of a combination of simple, affordable add-ons to regular kitchen appliances – like the gas stove knob – in combination with Amazon Alexa or Google Home for voice assistance. Additionally, AI provides the ability turn unstructured recipes from the internet into Alexa voice responders to guide the user. It also learns from the user experience for personalization.
You begin by turning the Klove knob and telling its app what you want to cook. You can either leave it to the app to find a suitable recipe from the internet, or specify one: for example, you could tell Klove “I want to make Chef John’s lighter chicken fettucine alfredo from Allrecipes.”
Take the example of a pan-seared salmon. The Klove app will begin with finding a recipe and sending you the ingredients. Then it takes you step by step through the dish, having parsed the recipe with its AI engine. You can ask what’s next after completing a step such as basting the salmon fillets with olive oil. The in-app cooking timer will get set according to the recipe and alert you when to turn the fillet and sprinkle capers, salt, and pepper.
You can do things in parallel as well. While the fillet gets seared in the skillet, Klove will get you to prepare the garnish. No need to keep looking up a recipe. It promises to make cooking as easy as following a map for directions while driving.
Even something as simple as boiling an egg can gain from this. Klove will first ask you if you want it soft or hard-boiled, and use the standard timing for it. But in reality, other factors contribute to how the egg gets done – such as, hardness of water. So, now, depending on your feedback on the boiled egg, the app will learn to make an adjustment for the next time.
Initially, Shete had only thought of a smart knob with sensors for alerts, given his background in embedded systems. But seeing the way Alexa was powering smart home devices to play music or the TV, control switches and thermostats, he expanded Klove into a voice-assisted and AI-supported device.
Angel investor Venkat Raju, who is also a mentor to several entrepreneurs, including Shete, explains that it’s not just about the device, but how the cooking experience is transformed. In effect, you have a virtual chef to assist you in the kitchen.
Other Klove devices on the anvil include a thermometer-like probe that can be stuck into food to tell if it’s cooked just right. For instance, a steak or a cake doesn’t always turn out right even with the correct temperature and timing – but the device can assess it from the inside. It’s a more accurate and elegant way of doing it than sticking a fork into a steak.
There’s also a smart weighing machine in the works. No need to use measuring cups or scales. Just put a vessel on the machine and tell it what ingredient you’re adding; it will tell you when you have the right amount.
Shete’s vision is to ultimately build a Klove PaaS (platform-as-a-service) which will not only integrate Klove devices but also third-party appliances in a smart kitchen.
Challenges of speed and scale
Even though Klove has a headstart in making the smart knob and its AI-powered app, it will need to scale up fast to stay ahead of rivals that emerge with similar products. The key lies in early adoption through the Indiegogo campaign and adequate funding in time to support it.
Bigger players can possibly jump in and do this faster. But Shete is already in talks with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) looking at licensing the technology. Next gen appliances will come enabled with smart widgets, and OEMs can cut development time by working with tech that works.
Shete says Amazon Launchpad, which showcases innovative products from startups, has onboarded Klove after trials – so the Klove knob will be available on Amazon when it retails. Target and Best Buy will be the brick-and-mortar retail outlets in the US.
Klove’s integration with Alexa interests Amazon, which is also pushing hard into the food space with the acquisition of Whole Foods. A smart kitchen product that tells Alexa what to order would be a natural extension, and the folks at Amazon have been talking to Shete on new possibilities.
Nestle is another global giant working with Klove. Last year, it picked Klove as the winner of a “Next Big Thing” contest for startups, which led to a pilot project. Now, the Klove app can potentially scan food product packages from brands like Nestle, and guide the user to cook it in different ways. That’s a win-win for Klove and Nestle.
One of the judges for the Nestle contest was Rajan Anandan, Google’s VP for India and Southeast Asia. Anandan later became an angel investor in Klove, along with Vageesh Patil, global leader for international products at GE, and Swamy Kotagiri, CTO of Magna International in Detroit.
Made in China
Klove, initially bootstrapped by Shete, has raised US$230,000 from angel investors and is currently in the process of raising a seed round of US$500,000, led by 1crowd.
His co-founders are Krishna Vedavyasa, with decades of retail experience, and wife Asha – who “hates tech,” and keeps the techies grounded on basics like the user experience.
For manufacture, Shete turned to Infotronics in Guangzhou. He’s well-versed with the hardware setup in China, where he made his earlier startup’s products and later worked with Motorola. The retail price of US$39 gives him a margin of 30-35 percent, after taking into account manufacture, distribution, and other expenses. Shipping is free in the US and Canada, but costs US$8 in other countries presently.
To a question about his devices getting cloned, Shete points out that 70 percent of what they do comes from the software. The manufacturer gets firmware which only works with Klove’s server and app. “Every device made has to be registered with our server. Cloned devices not registered with Klove’s server will not work with the Klove app,” he explains.
Although Klove is currently focused on the Alexa user base, Shete says it could just as easily work with Google Home once it matures. It can potentially be extended to any voice-assisted system, including those in non-English-speaking countries like China.
Shete feels he’s hit upon a sweet spot – on one hand, internet-connected and voice-assisted devices are proliferating, and on the other hand, content such as recipes is becoming richer and easier to access. For the rest of us, it can make cooking a chatty affair, even if you only hear an Echo.