3D printed food: love it or hate it, it’s coming. While to date we’ve seen some impressive proofs of concept (who could forget the terribly fancy 3D printed, edible Versailles?) as well as some ideas that might fit the “slimy, yet satisfying” Lion King trope by suggesting unpalatable-seeming ingredients, a lot of the hype seems to be just that — hype. For some, it brings to mind the brilliant question from Jurassic Park:
Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Well, we can 3D print food now. Paste extruders are less science fiction, more… well, work-in-progress. But there are those who genuinely do think that food 3D printers will come to be the next appliance in every kitchen, there between the microwave and the coffee maker, ready to create meals to order right from the countertop. And it’s not just in our kitchens, either — BeeHex has been working to develop this technology for NASA, as well, even seeing it as a potential solution for world hunger!
Of course, this raises some eyebrows — and some questions. I recently had the opportunity to pose A Few Questions For BeeHex CMO Jordan French to dig in a little more and find out about this company and its incredible plans.
Jordan French is a biomedical engineer, intellectual property attorney and the founding CMO of BeeHex, Inc., which debuted its food-printing technology at South by Southwest 2016 in Austin, Texas. In 2004 and 2005 French worked on heat dissipation and air-filtration systems as a payload engineer for the NASA-funded Mars Gravity Biosatellite, which included a consortium of engineers and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Washington and University of Queensland in Australia. He joined BeeHex, Inc. to help commercialize and market its 3D food-printing technology.
BeeHex began with a NASA grant to tech celebrity Anjan Contractor. NASA had a need for deep space missions: Its astronauts had to eat. After investing heavily in durable food bars and food pills–both of which astronauts found plain boring–NASA pivoted to funding 3D food printing technology. Anjan Contractor won a $125,000 grant to produce the world’s first 3D pizza printer usable in space.
As Contractor pursued a second and much larger phase of funding under a follow-up NASA grant congressman Ted Cruz led an effort to pull funding for 3D printing technology. Cruz named Contractor’s project as an example of government largesse and ultimately reduced NASA’s funding. Contractor later founded BeeHex to bring his invention to the market both as a commercial technology and for funding.
Anjan Contractor’s background is in both mechanical engineering and materials science and built his first 3D printer in the mid-2000s. The NASA grant and the possibility of engineering an apparatus to assemble and construct complex, marbled and unique foods led the BeeHex team to 3D food printing. Pizza was a particularly good use case as it is easily identifiable, colorful and to most– tasty.
How does the BeeHex 3D printing process work for food? How do the ‘building blocks’ become food?
BeeHex’s patent-pending extruder uses a pneumatic system– much like a piston– to tightly control the deposit of 3D printed material to build complex, interesting and layered foods. The process begins with the cartridges of food that constitute the layers that will go into the resulting 3D-printed food. For margherita pizza, for example, we have three ingredients: Dough, sauce and cheese. The extruder 3D prints each layer following the path instructed by BeeHex’s computer systems for each layer. At South by Southwest interactive BeeHex printers 3D printed pizza in the shape of the United States.
We’ve also experimented heavily with chocolate. In one instance we pulled a .jpeg photo of Barack Obama from Google Images and sixty seconds later 3D printed his face as chocolate.
How does the food actually taste?
The food tastes good and chef Jose Andres, who visited the BeeHex Inc. booth at South by Southwest Interactive 2016 agreed. The pizza inputs at South by Southwest included Pillsbury dough, Hunt’s tomato sauce and Kraft mozzarella cheese. The real challenge, however, is replicating and outdoing top chefs. Chef Jose Andres challenged the BeeHex team to 3D print a 256 layer pastry– or what would be the tastiest, lightest and fluffiest pastry in the world.
Where do you see food 3D printing in the next year? Five years?
In the next year you’ll see a proliferation of use-cases far beyond pizza using BeeHex 3D printing technology. Down the road you’ll see a 3D printer in every kitchen right next to your microwave or Green Mountain – Keurig coffee brewer.
What’s next for BeeHex?
BeeHex has been asked to appear and pitch on at least one major network television show. We have meetings lined up with a number of seed-stage angel investors and venture capital firms. We’ve also launched the BeeHex Kickstarter that delivers a deep-space 3D printed pizza right to your door.
The Kickstarter campaign, seeking to raise $5,000, runs through April 24th. Backers can get rewards including a frozen, 3D printed space pizza shipped to them ($19) or pledge all the way up to $7,000 for a live demo of some real-life 3D pizza printing.