NASA-Born BeeHex Makes 3D Printed Pizza Palatable, Brings R&D Operations to Ohio

beehex-logoOhio may be the heart of it all, but it’s the stomach that BeeHex is focusing on with its 3D printing technology. Having recently moved its R&D operations to Columbus, Ohio, the California-headquartered company is positioning itself to contribute to our collective gastronomic future. There’s probably no better foot in the tech-created-food door than pizza, as this particular type of dish lends itself nicely to extrusion-based creation — and the will is there to enhance this always-popular menu option.

Fortunately, Columbus is a relatively easy jaunt from my home base in Cleveland, so I set out today to see what Ohio has cooking in technology these days, arriving at BeeHex’s still-being-unpacked R&D center this afternoon. It’s been nearly a year since I last talked with Jordan French, CMO of the year-old company, and he and the team provided a warm welcome as I was among the first visitors to their new location. While I first shook hands with French and CEO Anjan Contractor, joined as well by Ben Feltner (legal and development) and Chintan Kanuga (CTO), it was actually a large robot that first greeted me when I walked in, as the BeeHex team enjoys the remote communication capabilities provided by a Beam robot. Communication is key to the growth plans for BeeHex, as the company benefits from focus, conversations, and an iterative philosophy.

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(L-R) Chintan Kanuga, Ben Feltner, Anjan Contractor (on screen), Jordan French, at the BeeHex R&D facility

“We’re a very technical company, a very human company — a very evolutionary company,” French told me as we sat down at the R&D conference table.

It’s that human element that sparks a difference for BeeHex, as they work to overcome barriers to entry for 3D printing in the food market. Not everyone finds 3D printed food appealing, they know, but it still might just be the future. And in one major point in BeeHex’s favor, it turns out that their 3D printed food is actually said to be delicious. While I still haven’t tried a slice hot off the print bed, as it were (the most recent printers haven’t made their way to Columbus yet), there are some people’s palates I’d trust, and a thumbs-up from Groupe Danone as well as endorsements from a veritable smorgasbord of well-known chefs seem to fit that bill. The team from Groupe Danone, French said, peppered the BeeHex team with questions about their food and were ultimately satisfied that the Roma-style pizza they ate was appetizing.

“Fresh food tastes good,” French said, noting that they use fresh ingredients to create both fresh and freezable pizzas. Still, he made sure to note, “We’re not a pizza company.”

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A BeeHex pizza [Image: BeeHex]

It’s the technology behind the pizza that makes the pies from BeeHex so tasty and it’s no wonder, as the company has its roots in NASA funding and research. Starting by looking to space, where astronauts need a ready supply of food that’s easy to produce with a small footprint, BeeHex is also looking to our food needs here on Earth, recognizing additional opportunities for growth in the military and in natural disaster relief (e.g. FEMA) efforts. And they’re putting the work in to create solutions, with a data-driven focus.

“What happens when something originates with NASA?” French asked. “Obviously they’re far ahead. We already have technology, we already have revenues from it.”

The point of the food they’re 3D printing isn’t that it’s a novelty (though of course it is), but that real food can be created with relative speed and ease for the people who need it. Lightweight, low-cost food-producing robots, French pointed out, are a much more likely solution than full-on restaurant setups for any of these applications.

“We want to feed people. We have all this data saying that people like food, and like to feed their kids,” French said with a smile. “We’re not going to have 3D printers everywhere, in homes or in kitchens. That’s not what we’re doing here.”

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A look inside BeeHex R&D

BeeHex isn’t targeting consumers with the desktop-sized food 3D printers, though of course that doesn’t mean there’s no hope of that elusive 3D printed slice. Restaurants and caterers are among the other business avenues that will eventually benefit from what this team is working toward: helping to bring these foods to more mouths. Chefs in particular are showing great enthusiasm, and BeeHex has formed partnerships with a few, noting that “The chef community has been great to us.” Working as advisers to the company are chefs Pasquale Cozzolino and Tom Lehmann, and several others are also noted to be “getting excited” at the prospect of what technology can bring to their kitchens. There’s even a 3D printer in the kitchen at New York City’s Ribalta, which has been known to extrude from time to time.

20170223_133233Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be seeing these 3D printers in more commercial kitchens; French suggests that next to the already-ubiquitous pepperoni slicer might be a good place for it. If that utilitarian placement doesn’t sound exciting, that’s okay with BeeHex. They’re setting out to create commercial solutions, not consumer-targeted desktop cookers.

“It’s not the most exciting thing; ‘exciting’ builds on novelty, not on reality. What’s commercial about this is that it’s useful. We’re at the point now where you can hit print on the computer and have a personal pizza in about one minute’s time, then do that over and over again, all in a footprint that’s not that big,” French told me.

That commercialization and realism inherent in the BeeHex philosophy is what will continue to drive them forward. French noted that the team is careful to maintain focus and to be data-driven; their angle is a more conservative take to the market, and to learn from the mistakes of companies that have gone before by never over-promising. “We want to make rational, good decisions,” he said. It’s more data that will help them to go further, as additional iterations are in the future.

We’ll be hearing more from BeeHex in the near future, as it’s not just recipes for pizza that they’re working on, but for success. With an announcement to come next week and a soft launch at next month’s International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, the team behind the pizza is keeping very busy.

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3D printed pizza always draws a crowd [Image: BeeHex]

Talking with the BeeHex team today at their R&D facility showed me that this is a team that has a definite finger on the pulse of the market they’re looking to serve. Data lies at the heart of all they’re doing, and they’re able to provide answers to most any question put to them, showing that they’ve done the due diligence necessary to be truly poised for a market presence. These guys didn’t just sit down one day and think “space pizza” was a funny phrase they should make up a business around, but realized that looking logically to how technology could fill real needs would make for a firm foundation. Armies famously march on their stomachs, and that phrase may just take on a new meaning as militaries are among the niches that could initially benefit greatly from tech-driven food preparation.

I’ll be visiting a few more Ohio-based companies in upcoming weeks, including two more in Columbus tomorrow. Interested in having 3DPrint.com visit your site? Let us know! Drop me an email any time. We love to see where the technology we write about comes to life, and to meet the teams behind the news!

[Photos: Sarah Goehrke for 3DPrint.com unless otherwise credited]

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