Beyond the Pitch
BeeHex Revolutionizes Food with 3D Printing and Robotics
The story of BeeHex, a technology startup that makes 3D printers that print food, is likely to make you hungry and guaranteed to make you smile.
BeeHex is creating groundbreaking, advanced robotics equipment for the food industry, but it is pizza printers that first opened doors for founder Anjan Contractor.
It all began in Austin, TX thousands of pizzas ago.
“I was very fortunate to work for a company that was a subcontractor to NASA, the Air Force, and other federal agencies,” Contractor said. He was the principal engineer on a NASA project and invented a 3D printer to re-create food in space from powdered ingredients (much like Tang).
“NASA could provide nutrition through dehydrated food, but for astronauts on deep space missions that wasn’t a viable option since the mission may last five to six years,” Contractor explained. “They wanted to provide textured food, personalized nutrition, and a better eating experience for optimal health and wellness.”
Printing pizza because was a natural fit for 3D printing process—a layer by layer construction of crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings.
Out of that work, Contractor improved on his printer design, accommodating various food consistencies and developed a patent-pending no-drip mechanism for food printing.
He decided to start a company—in Texas. Although a graduate in mechanical engineering from OSU, Contractor says that Ohio wasn’t even on his radar.
The Prototype, the Pivot, and Early Market Validation
Contractor and three other founders poured their resources into buying and building the first equipment, materials, and prototypes. Initially, the company was targeted for confectionary, then the founders pivoted to capitalize on the popularity gained by the NASA’s first “space pizza.”
“We went to trade shows and South by Southwest, hoping to raise some kind of funding,” Contractor said. “When that didn’t happen, we were going back and forth across the country as a catering company with the printable pizza. We would knock down the machine, pack it in a box, and fly from New York to Silicon Valley making from $2500 to $10,000. It was very difficult. Printing 300 pizzas with two people is not an easy task.”
By October of 2015, Contractor thought that it was time to wrap things up.
“Two people going crazy across the country printing pizza was not a sustainable business,” he said. “We set a deadline of six more months.”
The Columbus Backyard Connection Pays Off
“I at least wanted to succeed as a ‘space pizza’ catering company if not as a ‘food robot manufacturing’ company,” Contractor said. BeeHex landed a big project with GE Aviation in Cincinnati to print and serve pizza to 300 people.
“I was extremely busy that day,” Contract said. “We were churning out 300 pizzas one by one–myself, my cofounder, and a pizza robot; it was a messy process. That’s when Jim and Tom Grote, owners of legendary Donato’s pizza, wearing suits and ties came to see us.”
As Contractor tells it, the Grotes took off their ties and coats and jumped in.
“Jim was filling cartridges, filling cheese,” Contractor said. “Here is someone who has 200 restaurants that are so clean and particular about how they make pizzas—when they say something is 100 calories, you know it’s right—and with us, the dough was all over his pants and hands and face. It was a humbling experience.”
Something Jim Grote said, gave Contractor a little lift.
“This is how I started in 1963, he told us,” Contractor said. “He helped us out all day.”
BeeHex Delivers Disruptive Technology to Food Giants
Grote Company, also founded by Jim Grote, manufactures top quality food slicing and assembling equipment.
“At 8 a.m. when I am leaving Cincinnati,” Contractor said, “Jim Grote gave me the news that he wanted to invest in BeeHex.”
Contractor moved BeeHex to Columbus with joy in his heart.
“A lot of people in Austin told us that Columbus was going to be tough for a startup,” Contractor said. “To be honest, Columbus is as good as Austin, especially for food equipment. Columbus is a hidden gem and one of the best places in the world.”
Ohio has a headquarters concentration of food producers, manufacturers, and chains.
“With Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Cheryl’s Cookies, and Graeter’s Ice Cream, and major food chains, from Donato’s, to Wendy’s, White Castle, Charley’s Grilled Subs, Arby’s, Max & Erma’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings, we are in a wonderful place,” Contractor said.
BeeHex Begins to Scale
BeeHex is in the advantaged stages of development and prototype testing, preparing to build a pre-production machine.
“The help that we get in this environment is invaluable,” said Contractor. “We have exceptional backing from the Grote company and are working with manufacturers on scaling production and directly with customers. The early adopter market is set. Some customers already have purchased our machines before we have manufactured the first production version.”
When Contractor came back to Ohio, our Backyard Effect different from his previous experience with accelerators in Texas and on the West Coast.
“Rev1 wasn’t charging,” he said, “so I was a little skeptical at first. Rev1 helps on multiple levels, from brushing up our business model to giving me templates to calculate ROI for my customers. That’s how I’ve landed a few customers.”
Contractor likens the surge of startups in Columbus to what he saw in Austin ten years ago.
“OSU is producing talent in engineering, science, art architecture and business,” he said. “The startup culture is growing very fast here. Rev1 and others are helping it grow. Columbus is poised to be the next Austin, even greater.”
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