Find all your DIY electronics in the MakerShed. 3D Printing, Kits, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Books & more!

The latest Nomiku prototype.

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.

The Ember DIY Sous Vide Kit

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).

Lisa and Abe teach a class at BioCurious.

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?

The Team: Bam, Lisa & Abe

David Lang

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!


Related

Comments

  1. zof says:

    I would continue on the current path, become profitable and stable then look into giving back to the community in someway. If you can make good money doing something you love then go for it and don’t risk it until you are established and can withstand a giant company trying to pummel you just so they can raise their stock price by a few pennies.

    1. WSiaB says:

      Wait until Pear sues you for infringing on a vague patent – then you know you’ve made it.

  2. Travis Good says:

    Enjoyed the story (and I probably shouldn’t admit this) but I have no idea what this product is or does. Perhaps you have to be a foodie to appreciate it. Care to elaborate?

    1. David Lang says:

      Travis and Dave,
      You guys are exactly right! Sorry for the airball.

      I originally had a video in the piece that explained it, but we decided to edit it out. I didn’t compensate for the lost video. Good catch.
      -David

    2. cheffelisha says:

      Hi Travis. The sous vide method of cooking is very gentle on food and with the proper equipment is very easy to do. I wrote an article about the sous vide method and why you may want to cook this way. Hope it answers some of your questions.

      http://ourdailysalt.com/articles/recipes/cooking-with-the-sous-vide-method-2989

      Have a great day.

      Chef Felisha

  3. Dave Bell says:

    Travis: Thank you! Exactly what I was feeling…
    Yeah, I can go search it out, check out their blog, etc., but would a short description and maybe a LINK have been too much to ask?

  4. trkemp says:

    Sous-vide ( /suːˈviːd/; French for “under vacuum”)[1] is a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath for a long time—72 hours in some cases—at an accurately determined temperature much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 60 °C (140 °F). The intention is to cook the item evenly, not overcook the outside while still keeping the inside at the same ‘doneness’ and to keep the food juicier.

    - Wikipedia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sous-vide

  5. Bryce Harding says:

    If they’re making a Sous Vide machine that is that much cheaper than anything else available and still make a profit they shouldn’t feel ashamed to keep it closed source. Society is receiving a net benifit from their work. If they want to give back to the maker community they need only continue to make their machineas hacker friendly as they can and maybey offer an unassembled kit version of their product for slightly less than the assembled product. They get to make money making things and society gets a cheaper sous vide. Win-Win

  6. KEGS says:

    Build your business, forget open source. Young upstarts can and should challenge older, establised and slower moving companies….maybe someday your company will be bought out by a bigger the company …..you should be compensated for your efforts.

  7. 0xfred says:

    A very nice build and an interesting story.

    My favourite bit: They’d been dating about a week and he’s strangely motivated enough by an offhand comment to try and impress her by building a sous vide device… that made me laugh.

  8. Ricardo says:

    I seen this device in kickstarter, and kicked in. I had been looking for a cheaper alternative to the current sous vide devices and this is simply perfect. Also, I work as an attorney in intellectual property. I would strongly suggest that you file for a design and/or utility patent on this before its too late (there are statutory time limits). Cheers!

  9. Richard Mays says:

    I’m still wondering about the deep fried egg yolk. What’s up with that?

    1. Bob says:

      It’s not actually fried. It’s poached in the shell. The egg white is set but the yolk is runny like over-easy.

      J. Kenji Lopez-Alt explains it better than I do.

      http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/05/sous-vide-101-slow-cooked-eggs.html

  10. Sean Ragan says:

    This is a great story, but if it is in fact true that competition from established culinary equipment manufacturers would destroy Abe and Lisa’s budding business, then they may not have much chance at all. The first few units they ship will probably be sent to those manufacturers, who will tear them apart and figure out how they work in short order. Here is a case where a patent might actually do some good, in the world, if the method they’ve devised is in fact patentable. I will be very surprised if it is, however, and on the whole I’d say it’d be smarter to go open source with it immediately, and see what the big players do, rather than wait until units are actually shipping to find out they’ve been torpedoed by a simple bit of reverse engineering. Even if the big guys do run with the design, Abe and Lisa might still have a market amongst shoppers for whom OSHW and hacker-friendliness are selling points.

  11. [...] the piece The Best Maker Business Story I’ve Ever Heard…, Bryce Harding says: If they’re making a Sous Vide machine that is that much cheaper than [...]

  12. Alan Clayton says:

    I’ve met Abe and Lisa. Two people whose motives are pure, and whose success is deserved. Maybe the trick is to get into bed WITH a major corporation to speed up the distribution process, with a phased deal which gives them a good profit for phase 1, a more shared profit for phase 2, and the option at a predetermined price for a buy out at phase 3.
    I think these guys are well able to invent more products, create a fun food loving community, and expand the Nomiku range from a single item.
    In the fulness of time open source should be an aid to their long term success…

  13. shane says:

    Its pretty much nonsense to say anyone would bother with reverse engineering it, you are talking about pretty simple subsystems. A good graduate electrical engineer and industrial designer could get an identical project up and running in a few days.

    A nice OLED on / off button. An Arduino controller with a decent thermocouple (2 if you want real accuracy) that is suitable for boiling water. An immersion heating element driven by a relay off the arduino etc.. a circulation pump. The code is really not very difficult.

    What they have is a nice concept how to clip to an existing pot & nice elegant UI concept, neither are particularly easy to protect by tademark or design mark. Best protection is to build a recognisable brand. Sous vide is pretty much a food nerd hobby at home, i don’t see it going mass market any time soon, so established white good vendor probably aren’t that keen to copy.

    + they are not particularly cheap. One of the simplest and best dishes for sous vide is 65o degree egg… Japanese call it hot spring egg.. a simple thermostat controlled cooker accurate to 0.1oC are available <$100 USD already. http://www.amazon.co.jp/%E3%82%A2%E3%83%BC%E3%83%8D%E3%82%B9%E3%83%88-%E6%B8%A9%E6%B3%89%E3%81%9F%E3%81%BE%E3%81%94%E5%99%A8-%E3%81%9F%E3%81%BE5%E3%81%A1%E3%82%83%E3%82%93/dp/B000AW67T6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1342791973&sr=8-2

  14. […] consumer class immersion circulator that was the highest grossing food project on Kickstarter and a Haxlr8r success story. The product aims to bring to fancy restaurant technology into the home kitchen with […]

  15. […] consumer class immersion circulator that was the highest grossing food project on Kickstarter and a Haxlr8r success story. The product aims to bring to fancy restaurant technology into the home kitchen with […]

  16. Isla says:

    I’ll right away seize your rss feed as I can not in finding your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service.
    Do you’ve any? Please let me understand in order that I could subscribe.

    Thanks.

In the Maker Shed