Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2016 Best Industries report.

 

Your kitchen is about to get a whole lot smarter.

In November, San Francisco-based food tech startup Innit emerged from stealth mode with an ambitious plan to transform the way food is stored, prepared, and cooked. Founded in 2013 by Eugenio Minvielle, former president and CEO of Unilever North America, and Kevin Brown, former CEO of data-storage company Coraid, the startup is partnering with kitchen appliance companies to make smart devices that let you cook food to perfection with the push of a button. 

How does it work? Products built with Innit's technology will use sensors that measure things like the weight, temperature, and moisture levels of the food in your kitchen without having to touch it. The data is then used to calculate the optimal time and heat levels for cooking.

"All chickens are not created equal," says Minvielle, explaining that birds of even very slightly different weights require different time and heat settings. "You need to let the chicken drive the oven."

Innit is not focused solely on cooking, however. The company is also working on technology for appliances, like a smart refrigerator that can detect what's inside and suggest recipes, or tell you the shelf life of certain items. 

"Basically, your red cabbage [can] talk to your refrigerator to remind you that you probably ought to eat it before the weekend, or to help you sneak it into the stir fry because you want your kids to eat more veggies," says Brown.

A tasty proposition.

There's significant opportunity for startups focused on food data and analytics. Food is a $21.5 trillion global market, but just 0.14 percent of revenue goes toward software for food logistics, processing, and retail, according to a report from market research firm Frost & Sullivan. What's holding back the digitization of food?

One factor is just the usual lag time that comes between the advent of a new technology and its widespread use, according to Brown. He compares the situation to the way GPS technology debuted in car navigation systems before spreading to smartphones. "GPS took a while to set up, but now it's everywhere," he says.

Innit so far has raised $25 million in funding from an undisclosed group of investors. In December, the company announced the formation of a "scientific advisory committee," which includes Dr. Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami and former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Raymond McCauley, biotechnology chair at think tank-incubator hybrid Singularity University.  

Companies developing similar technology to Innit's include San Francisco-based June, which makes an "intelligent oven" that connects to a mobile app; Cambridge, Massachusetts-based C2Sense, which gauges food ripeness using sensors that pick up ethylene gas; and San Francisco-based 6Sensor Labs, whose flagship product detects gluten in food.

These three analytics-focused companies are among the newest entrants to the broader food tech industry, which has been a hot target for venture capitalists recently. Food tech startups raised a combined $5.74 billion across 275 deals globally in 2015, the most money invested in the history of the sector and a 152 percent jump in dollar terms compared to 2014, according to venture capital data provider CB Insights.

Prominent venture-backed companies in the food tech space include meal-kit delivery startup Blue Apron, prepared-meal-delivery company Maple, and Hampton Creek, which focuses on finding new ways of using plant-based ingredients in food products. Others deal less with the actual food, such as Sourcery, which provides accounts-payable software for companies in the wholesale food-service industry.

While U.S. investment in food tech companies has been growing since 2013, it's still early days for the sector, according to Todd Dagres, co-founder of San Francisco-based venture firm Spark Capital. "There is no bubble in food tech," he says. His firm and others are interested in any company that "is using technology--whether it's internet or mobile or new forms of software--to make food production more profitable."

Innit has yet to unveil any products and declined to say which kitchen appliance brands it's working with, but the company expects to have devices hit the market next summer. Going forward, the startup will need to generate traction within a food market that has been slow to change. It also faces the challenge of securing partnerships with equipment manufacturers to create new types of appliances.

Still, Brown and Minvielle remain optimistic about the company's prospects in the next year. Unlike other impressive-sounding advanced technologies that are still in development--driverless cars, for example--the era of connected food is already upon us.

"We can get there without inventing any new physics," Brown says.

Published on: Jan 19, 2016