One of my favorite memories of World Maker Faire last year was meeting Lisa Qiu and Abe Fetterman. They were our booth neighbors in the Arduino tent, and they had built an incredible DIY Sous Vide machine and were serving up deep fried egg yolks to anyone who passed by. Of course I remember the fried egg yolk, but more so, I remembered the energy and passion of Lisa and Abe.
Last week, I ran into them again, but this time under slightly different circumstances. While covering the Haxlr8r Pitch Night for MAKE, I was surprised to see Lisa take the stage to present Nomiku, their new beautifully designed sous vide cooking device.
For some reason, I felt really proud. I wasn’t sure why. I mean, I didn’t have anything to do with their product and they barely remembered who I was, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of excitement. After the pitch, I approached them about meeting for coffee. I wanted to hear the full story – the nitty gritty of how they went from DIY amateurs to Food Network-ready entrepreneurs.
Well, I’m pleased to report that the story was better than I could have imagined. It’s more than just a well-designed device, it’s a shining example of everything that’s great about the MAKE community and the immense opportunity there is for anyone who’s passionate and curious.
Here’s the full story:
Lisa and Abe were living in New York. They had been dating for about a week when Lisa made an offhand comment about wishing she could cook sous vide in her apartment. Sous vide, a method that involves slow cooking food inside of a plastic bag in a precise temperature bath over long periods of time, was popular among the high-end chefs that Lisa admired but the home-use machines were prohibitively expensive. Abe, ever the enterprising swooner, thought he could make her one. He didn’t have any experience in this type of endeavor, but possessed plenty of confidence nonetheless.
To provide just a little more background, Abe was working as an astrophysicist specializing in plasma physics and Lisa had studied journalism at NYU. At this point in the story, neither of them knew how to solder.
Their lack of relevant education and basic making skills didn’t slow them down one bit. Shortly thereafter, they had created a DIY Sous Vide cooking device for only $50 in parts that involved no soldering. They published their design on their blog.
“We thought it was going to blow up the internet, but nobody came,” Abe confessed to me. Their design, even though it was the lowest-cost DIY sous vide around, didn’t get much attention.
They kept building. Soon, they had created an improved DIY model that could be built for $75 in parts. Again, not much attention.
It wasn’t until a chance encounter in a Manhattan coffee shop with Mitch Altman that their story took a turn for the wonderful. At the time, Abe and Lisa didn’t know about MAKE, Maker Faire, or who Mitch was. They were just sitting at a nearby table as Mitch was being interviewed by Matt Mets. They overheard the entire interview, and after it was over, they approached Mitch.
“Hey! We’re Makers!! I think…” Lisa said to him.
Mitch invited them to a soldering class he was teaching at Alpha One Labs and Lisa took him up on it. With the knowledge she learned there, and some Arduino skills they picked up at NYC Resistor, they designed a kit called the “Ember” and began selling it for $80.
I stopped them at this point in their story. I was doing the math in my head, “Wait, that must have been a slim margin on your kits. Right?
“Oh, certainly. There was no margin at all. We just wanted everyone to be able to sous vide,” Lisa told me. And they did. They made their kit as easy to assemble and use as possible. If it was something they could figure out, they thought, then anyone could do it. They started teaching classes at Alpha One and NYC Resistor to anyone who was interested. While teaching one of their classes, they met a native Thai chef who was working in the city named Bam Suppipat (he comes back up later in the story).
Pretty soon, life got in the way of their sous vide dreams. Abe got a job in San Francisco and the couple relocated to the Bay Area. Lisa also began working a new job. Their passion for cooking seemed as though it would always remain a hobby.
But they missed it. After seeing a write-up about Haxlr8r, the startup accelerator in Shenzhen that focuses exclusively on hardware companies, Lisa and Abe decided to go all-in on their sous vide idea and try and turn their dream into a business. They were committed and now they had no other options but to try and make it happen.
Once in Shenzhen, everything got harder. They were quickly running through their seed capital and had very little to show for it. Out of ideas and stressed about their project, they decided to take a short trip to Thailand to try and clear their heads. They called the only friend they had in Thailand, Bam, and asked him to show them around.
During their first night with Bam, they explained their sous vide project and all the challenges they were facing, technically and emotionally. Bam, as it turned out, was the perfect person for them to confide in. In addition to his studies at the French Culinary Institute, unbeknownst to Abe and Lisa, Bam had an Industrial Design degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. His life’s dream was to design better culinary devices and equipment, but he had recently resigned himself to move back home to Thailand and take a stable corporate job. Even though he was stuck in a cubicle during the week, Bam was still cooking and teaching low temp cooking in Thailand on weekends to home cooks.
It was a match made in heaven.
What started as a friendly evening of catch up quickly turned into a full-blown design intervention. The team spent the next three days reviewing, designing, and imagining what would eventually become the Nomiku design you see today. Abe and Lisa headed back to Shenzhen with a renewed sense of determination and Bam, who still couldn’t believe his dream job had randomly fallen into his lap, joined them.
The team spent the next month building, developing, and sourcing the design that they’re now trying to raise money with. In order to start the manufacturing process, they turned, like so many of us now do, to Kickstarter and are trying to raise at least $200,000. They’re close to their goal.
This also brings up the interesting questions around how maker businesses fit into the wider consumer marketplace. Abe and Lisa would love to make their product hackable, but once you open their new design, things can get really dangerous. They also can’t make it open source right now because major culinary suppliers are chomping at the bit to replicate their work. If they made it open source, those companies would crush them because of their established distribution channels.
It’s a fine line. I don’t have good answers. What are your thoughts on this? What would you do in this situation?