SkyFounder Spotlight: Timothy Chen of SkyTeam Sereneti Kitchen
This week’s spotlight is on SkyTeam Sereneti Kitchen CEO and co-founder Timothy Chen. Sereneti produces a countertop Automated Robotic Cooking Appliance.
Q: What problem does your startup solve?
A: Sereneti solves your office lunch time option, where it provides you a fresh hot meal for a fraction of the cost that it would take for delivery or carrier.
Q: What was your experience prior to working in the startup industry?
A: I was at a startup where we grew from a seed-stage robotics company in telehealth to the market leader around the world, with over 300 employees and a pre-IPO valuation. And before that I was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Tata Group, which is the largest conglomerate holding company in India.
Q: How has your startup evolved over time?
A: We’re building something that’s quite hard, mechanically, so it’s more from a vision where we wanted to initially develop a machine that could cook, and make cooking easier and automate cooking for the home. And quickly, we figured out that building a machine that is cost-efficient and can be accepted into the home, may be a longer term vision. In the near term, we need to focus on placing these machines where there’s the highest amount of density, which is right in the offices.
The best way to capture the highest density of people is at a location where there’s a need for good food that’s cost-effective, but where there’s also a high density population where you can serve them something better for a fraction of the price.
Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
A: We have to move the company forward. When you’re an entrepreneur, the company is your singular focus. It’s not so much, what gets you out of bed in the morning, it’s what keeps you awake at night. It’s the multitude of issues that you think about, that don’t really leave your mind. I think it’s a myriad of issues of how you continually overcome hurdles that you face, and get what you need, and solving issues for the team.
Q: Where did you get the original inspiration for your startup?
A: It was my two younger sisters who came to me and asked, why can’t large robots cook food? They brought a Keurig coffee machine, a spatula, and iTunes, then they related the cooking process to the process of creating music. If you can play music by just using a store of songs and pushing a button, you should be able to do the same thing using a recipe. It’s essentially the same information.
Our mom is a great cook, so they’ve watched her execute the meals. They realized a lot of it is repetitive, and what recipes are, is essentially just a machine language.
Q: How did you meet your team?
A: Our team came to us because they were interested in cooking, they were interested in food, and most of them have all worked in hardware in some way. They realized that the last two things to be automated in your life are cooking and driving. People who were passionate about food gravitated towards us, through a variety of mediums such as AngelList, such as trade fairs, and word of mouth, different professors. That is how we all came together.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced? How did you overcome it?
A: The biggest challenge is actually hardware. In Silicon Valley, about 9 out of 10 hardware companies fail, and fail massively. Building hardware is a tremendous task. It’s harder than anyone can ever imagine, because you get one chance to make it right, and a lot of people don’t even get to that stage. That’s the biggest challenge so far, in terms of realizing how much time and cost this is actually going to give to the product.
Q: What has been some of your biggest successes?
A: We’ve done our unit economics, we’ve built our first consumer-ready machine, which is a handmade device, that’s worked really well. We’ve realized that we can have over 50% operating margin on food, and still be about half the cost of the market in terms of delivery on food. I think the biggest milestone that we had is that people really seem to enjoy the offering that we have, and it’s a matter of putting the device together so that we can scale it.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
A: For every startup, the dream is to change the landscape of your specific sector. For us, to connect the number of talented chefs, whether it’s amateur or professional, to be able to create specific recipes that a device can actually actuate for consumers, so that consumers can have a wider variety of different types of foods, they can procure it at a lesser cost, and they can decrease their food waste by getting the exact amount of ingredients that are wanted. We believe that building this ecosystem is what we want to do in the next 5 years.
Q: Why did you choose SkyDeck?
A: We had heard about SkyDeck because we’ve talked to a lot of Berkeley professors. Berkeley professors are the best in machine learning and vision, which is a core part of our technology – to be able to use sensory systems to cook food.
This is where we heard about SkyDeck, and we looked at some of the companies that SkyDeck has worked with in the past, and we’ve seen a lot of successes, especially in hardware. We decided to apply to SkyDeck mostly because of the community. Also, Berkeley is second to none in the country in terms of machine learning, in terms of AI, so that is very valuable to us.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who’s trying to start a business?
A: Have experience in the industry you intend to enter, as much as possible, before you actually enter it because you have to either learn quickly, or have already amassed a certain amount of knowledge to be proficient in working on what you’re working on.
Q: Do you have a team motto?
A: Our company motto is to make food better. As a team, it’s a matter of focus, you focus on the things that are most important, in the near term, and in the long term. In the near term for us, it is capital and product. We have to make a great product, and we have to focus on raising enough capital. For the long term, the team motto is: ‘we want to build an ecosystem that will enable people to eat healthier and better’. Every decision that we make is towards that ecosystem, and it is that very ecosystem which is going to be a part of our overall food industry.