Episode 141 - Power To The Jar!
Published January 29, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Madhuri Eunni. NEO is the world's first Smart Jar. What is a Smart Jar? We're joined by Madhuri Eunni, CEO and founder of SKE (Smart Kitchen Ecosystems) Labs, the makers of the NEO to find out more about this innovative product, as well as the coming Internet Of Things. Recorded 1/25/2015.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
More about SKELabs
SKELabs (on Twitter)
SKE Labs Introduces World's First Smart Jar at CES 2015, by Peter Wismath (CES Digital News Center, 1/8/2015)
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #141. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Madhuri Eunni from SKELabs. Madhuri, thanks for joining us.
Madhuri Eunni: Thanks for having me.
MJ: Our standard question that we ask everybody that joins us is could you tell us a little bit about your background and SKELabs?
ME: Sure. I started out being an engineer. It was quite awhile back. I had done both my Masters and Bachelors both in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Kansas and in India. Then I worked for some time in the Silicon Valley with various companies doing engineering jobs doing business development. At some point, it struck me that there were some gaps in innovation that I could be doing better at, that I could be contributing much more to technology in my own way. So, I decided to start SKELabs, which is actually short for Smart Kitchen Ecosystems. Really what we do at SKELabs is to try and bridge the gaps that technology has not been able to penetrate when it comes to the kitchen, and so we try to create different kinds of interconnected products that can be used within the home, especially in the context of food and nutrition and things like that.
MJ: It looks like the first product of SKELabs is the Neo. That’s the smart jar, correct?
ME: Yes, that’s our first product which we launched just a couple of weeks back at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas.
MJ: And for those who don’t know, what is a smart jar?
ME: Well, it’s like the jar that you’d probably have in Star Wars. It’s the kind of jar that can do things that your ordinary jars couldn’t imagine doing. Basically, it’s a jar that has sensors built into it, it has bluetooth connectivity. When you put things into the jar, it starts to measure how much you’re consuming and how often you’re consuming it. We have databases built in; if you scan a barcode or type a name in of whatever you put into the jar, it will bring you information such as calories, the carbs, the fat, the protein. It gets into the wellness aspect of the food that you’re consuming and it can tell you things like whether it’s fresh or not, or how long it has been since you bought something and you put it into the jar and you never looked at it. It can also give you recipes based on what you have in the jar. Let’s say you have ten jars with ten different things in it and you’re really not sure what you can make out of those things. The app that is built on top of the technology that we have will search the web and get you recipes based on whatever you have in your pantry or your fridge. It’s a bit of technology, it’s a bit of aggregating information and putting it in context. So, basically it does a little bit of thinking for you--it’s a jar that can think.
MJ: So, this is a product that you’d envision having more than one of then, is that correct?
ME: Yes, that would be right.
MJ: And you mentioned it’s safe in the refrigerator, and I think the website mentions it’s safe in the dishwasher?
MB: I would assume if you’re going to want people to have a lot of these, the goal is to get the cost down? I don’t even know what you’re planning on selling them for, but I would assume if you want people to have ten or twelve of these things in their house that the cost would have to come down at some point, correct?
ME: The cost is comparable to what I would say are good, high-end jars that you would get in, say, Crate and Barrel or Williams-Sonoma or any of those places. So, really we’re only adding a couple of layers of software, we’re adding electronics into it, but in terms of cost, we are trying to keep it in the same range of what people can afford today. It’s not going to be $300 a jar if that’s what you’re expecting. But on the same note, it’s not going to be $3 a jar either. So, if you’re looking to bring it down to the mason jar standards, no, that’s quite impossible with the technology we have right now. But it will be within reach; it will be affordable in multiples of many. It’s not going to be a single jar that’s going to be a showpiece.
MJ: You mentioned that bluetooth is the way that the jar connects out. Is that through a smartphone or a tablet or something like that? Or is it through a computer?
ME: It will work through your phone and tablet, and it can work through your computer as well. So, there’s no limitations with what it works with and we’re making it work both with Android and iOS, so those devices will be connected.
MB: Will there be multiple sizes or is it just the one standard size?
ME: We anticipate making multiple sizes but for now it’s just one size. In the future, in a couple of months down the road as we see the feedback and we get more consumers to start adopting it, we want to make more sizes. We also want to make specialized jars that would be for liquids, like milk, juice, or something that goes into the fridge, things like that.
MB: If I have ten jars in my house and ten different things in them, is there a way for me to look up on my phone “Hey, you have these ingredients on hand, you could make chocolate chip cookies or pizza” or something?
ME: Yes, absolutely. That will be one of the key features, and it will tell you exactly how much you have and what you can make with it.
MJ: You mentioned the Neo Kitchen app. Is that app available now or is this something that you guys are launching in the same timeframe as the jar? Is the jar available now to buy? You mentioned it launched at the International Consumer Electronic Show.
ME: It launched at the show but it’s not available to buy just yet. We will be doing a crowdfunding campaign in about two weeks, so that’s when the jars will be available for pre-ordering, and the app will be available at the same time we ship out the jars.
MB: So, in order for the jar to figure out what’s in it, you scan the barcode of whatever it is you’re going to put in it? I know there’s a mug out there that you can actually pour any liquid into and it will tell you what it’s made of, all the way down to the most minute detail. I’m assuming that’s not the case with this?
ME: No, it’s not. You’re right. You’re talking about the Vessyl. We’re not going into the molecular level of what you put into it. We’re talking more about the connectivity to the cloud and bringing content from elsewhere, and intelligence from the cloud into your system. It doesn’t tell you, when you put pasta into it, that it is pasta but it can tell you what you can make out of it, like it can get you recipes and it will give you calories and it can say “Okay, this is what the breakdown is.”
MJ: So, it is storing data in the cloud?
ME: Yes, it stores data in the cloud.
MJ: We had on a couple of guys from IAmTheCavalry.Org, it’s sort of an umbrella organization of a whole bunch of security professionals. Right now, I think they’re targeting more automotive and medical devices, but we’ve briefly talked with them a little bit about some of the internet of things stuff. One of the concerns that we were talking about a little bit with them is that the more connected devices that you add to your home, the more you are somewhat building a platform that people can hack into. I like that the Neo is bluetooth rather than always connected to WiFi or something like that, but as a company, how do you look at security and having this data in the cloud for some of the concerns that maybe people might have? Not that I think people are that suspicious of maybe what you’re eating, but how do you address that as a company so that consumers have a good comfort level?
ME: That’s an ongoing, evolving thing Mike. Right now we’re dealing with this technology on a very small scale obviously, and as we scale it bigger and as there are more jars in everyday use and people are interacting with it on a day to day basis, there are going to be massive amounts of data that we’re going to be gathering from this. We understand that having access to that kind of data is great, but at the same time it comes with a huge amount of responsibility, which is to protect that data and safeguard it and make sure that the data is being used for whatever it is that we originally stated that it would be used for, which is to provide a better experience for the end user and not necessarily to sell the data to retailers or give insight into a person’s eating habits to whoever it is that wants to have that kind of insight. So, we are very careful about how we store the data, we’re very careful about how we wrap layers of security on top of that and how individual profiles are created, access, all of those good things that go into actually associating big data with individuals. We tend to take most of the individual characteristics out of it and store it as just mass amounts of data at the end of the day, and try to find out more about, in general, how healthy people are eating and what it is that they like to do in the morning, like what kind of jars they access in the morning and in the evening, etc. We’re trying to get more insight into general consumer behavior as opposed to being specific about individual behaviors.
MB: About the zero touch shopping--are you syncing with Amazon or Peapod so that when the jar gets low, more food shows up at your house or is it more that it sends something to your phone to tell you “Hey, you’re at the grocery store and you’re almost out of sugar or flour”?
ME: It actually does sync up with Amazon. We don’t have access to their checkout system obviously but we can add it to your shopping cart if you’re signed in using your Amazon profile. So, we will take you all the way up to your cart. After that, Amazon takes over.
MJ: I’m assuming right now you guys are beta testing and are in prep for your crowdfunding launch. Have you learned anything really surprising so far in that process, or has anything really changed with your concept of how this would work from the one you had when you first started?
ME: There were two things that we learned in the process, and one of them was surprising--actually how much people could relate to something like this. We were under the impression that this was going to be more of early adopters, that the very techy people were going to be the ones who were going to really be able to connect to a product like this. But what we found were that a lot of non-techy people, people who were just regular cooks, people who are regular everyday “We do something else, we’re not in the tech business” people who were actually interested in knowing how well they’re eating. So, we understand that we were not just a technology company in that respect, that we were actually more of a lifestyle product, and so we had to engage and had the opportunity to connect to a different segment of people that way. So, that was a bit of a surprising thing and that kind of changed the way we went about designing the features of the product. We started to concentrate a bit more on the user experience, a little bit more on “How can we make this more fun for someone who doesn’t necessarily care about technology but cares about food, cares about recipes, cares about making perfect blueberry muffins every time they have a party” or something like that. That was one key thing we learned as we interacted with people and had them look at the product. The second thing that came out of the beta testing phase was that the jar doesn’t solve all problems. We’re not here to make you skinny, we’re not here to make you eat better, we’re not going to promise that this is going to take care of pretty much everything in your fridge and pantry. You cannot put apples or oranges or meat into a jar--it just doesn’t work. But at the same time, you have to start somewhere. It seemed like this was a good place to start and expand into the rest of the kitchen and to other items that you would use on a day to day basis in your home, especially with respect to food. So, we learned that we cannot make the jar work for everyone and everything, but at the same time, we started with a jar and we hope to continue to make other things matter as well.
MJ: I find that fascinating because I would have guessed that this would have had a lot of appeal for folks in the Quantified Self movement, which seems to be very heavy in tech and not so much for other people. So, that’s really interesting.
ME: Yeah, and that’s what took us by surprise. We obviously got great feedback from people who are into wearables, people who are into the Quantified movement, people who are interested in having this whole self-awareness about them. But what really surprised us were bakers, people who have families of three children and want to make sure that every child is getting the right amount of protein every day--they had an interest in something like this and that was kind of a bit of a “hmm…” movement for all of us, I think.
MJ: You mentioned you can’t put things like fruit, like apples or oranges or meat into the jar. What can you put into the jar, or what have you found that might be a little surprising that you can put into the jar?
ME: Let me rephrase that: there’s no such thing as you cannot put it into the jar. But from a practical point of view, would you want to stuff an apple into a jar? Eh… it’s up to you. I mean, you’re welcome to try it. I would try it and I’m fine with it, as long as it stays in and it fits, then it’s alright. But from a practical point of view, I would think more about putting in baking items, putting in chia seeds, flax, protein powders, your cereal for the morning, sugar, salt, things that are important for you to track. All that kind of good stuff can go into the jar and that would make it so much more easier for you to keep track and be aware of how nutritious your overall eating patterns are. Would you want to stuff meat into it? Again, I’m not so sure. You’re welcome to try. I think there was somebody who said “What would happen if I put boiling water into the jar?” It strikes me as “Well, it’s a great experiment and you can try it…” and for all I know, nothing is going to happen to it, it’s not going to affect the electronics because we are testing it to be quite stable for very high temperatures, but what’s the purpose of doing something like that? Is it going to tell you the nutrition of boiling water? It’s not very different from that of cold water, so what are you accomplishing with putting boiling water into a jar? Really nothing. So, I would think the jars are going to be important for people who train for marathons or who want to keep track of how good their smoothies turn out to be when they add more chia or flax or hemp seeds into it, things like that. Dry items, raw things, grains, flour, baking stuff--those are the kinds of things I would think would make the most sense to put into jars.
MB: For nutritional information that’s put on the side of a box, it’s usually a quarter of a cup is one serving, or three pieces is one serving--I’m assuming this can tell how much you’ve eaten by weight. So, if you put Oreo cookies in there and you ate six or seven of them, will it actually calculate that for you and say “Hey, you might want to lay off those?”
ME: Yes, absolutely. It has accuracy down up to a gram. We tested it at CES with M&Ms and trail mix and it was amazing, we had a lot of fun with it. So, every time you pick up an M&M or two, it’s going to tell you exactly how many calories, and carbs, and fat, and protein in real time; within seconds, it gives you an update on your app on your phone and you know exactly how much you’re consuming. You can also track it on a long-term basis. You could say “How much did I eat all of yesterday or all of last week?” and it will give you a breakdown of it.
MB: That I think would be a huge advantage because to me it would be much easier than sitting around going “Okay, I had a quarter cup of M&Ms, how many calories is that?” If this thing can tell you all of that and I don’t have to calculate anything, to me that’s a huge advantage.
ME: Exactly, and that’s one of our key features, is to enable people to track things without having to have the burden of entering things or doing the mental math or having to put it into an app and say “Okay, how much did I eat for breakfast this morning?” or “Did I snack on too many things this afternoon?” Keeping track of those things is no longer necessary when you have something like this to do it for you.
MJ: You mentioned the crowdfunding effort that starts in about two weeks you said? Which system are you guys using for crowdfunding, if you don’t mind me asking?
ME: We’re going to be on Indiegogo. I believe the launch date is February 9th, so we’re working towards that.
MJ: For someone that’s interested in Neo, the smart jar, how would they find out more or get on your guys’ mailing list or just generally make sure that they’re in the loop?
ME: We’re now open for invitations. So, if you go to our website, you can put in your email address and we will keep you updated as soon as we are making progress and launching the campaign. We’re also on all the social channels, so follow us, tweet at us. We respond to pretty much everyone all the time. We’re happy to get people talking about this, asking us questions. As we get closer to the campaign launch, we will be sending out more details, especially for people who requested invite--they’ll be getting a little surprise in their email, so I would suggest people sign up.
ME: I’m glad I had a chance to talk about this and thanks for all the questions.
MJ: Thanks so much for joining us.
ME: Thanks. You guys have a nice day.
MB: You too. Thank you.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for this radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.
Image Credit: © Copyright SKE Labs Inc. 2015. All rights reserved. (used with permission)