The roti is a flatbread that’s ubiquitous in South Asia. In its simplest form, the roti/chappati is made of whole wheat flour, roasted on a tawa or flat griddle. It accompanies meat and vegetable curries in most Indian meals. It's also whatever you want it to be - a quesadilla in Mexico, a prata in Singapore, or a wrap in the West. Whilst healthy and delicious, rotis can be a pain to make. From kneading and rolling the dough to roasting it on the tawa, roti-making is a time-consuming affair. It's probably why the South Asian diaspora have made rice their staple.
Pranoti Nagarkar, an Indian-born Singaporean engineer, set her mind on creating a machine to revolutionise the way Indians eat at home. In 2009, she built a prototype of an automatic roti maker which won the Start-Up Singapore competition. Together with her husband Rishi Israni, she founded Zimplistic, a robotics startup whose mission is to "tackle hard real-world problems to improve the daily lives of people."
Rishi also co-founded TenCube, a mobile security startup which was acquired by McAfee in 2010. Using his programming expertise, Rishi wrote the firmware for the Rotimatic. The couple has so far raised $18.5 million across 3 rounds of funding. Check them out at www.rotimatic.com.
Rishi took some time to speak with us!
Dimi: Can you explain to our readers what the Rotimatic does?
Rishi: Rotimatic is the world's first fully automatic roti making robot. Rotimatic’s patented AI-based technology makes it easy for anyone to have fresh, low calorie, low carb whole wheat flatbreads in minutes. By simply adding in the flour of your choice, water and oil in individually designated compartments, the Rotimatic measures & mixes the correct ratio of ingredients to deliver one hot, fresh and puffed Roti per minute. It is like a 3D printer, the yummier kind.
For centuries, there has been no automation done for this tedious daily chore. It takes 30-40 minutes every meal to make this staple flat bread. The nature of it is such that ready made solutions are laden with preservatives and do not taste the same as a hot and puffed hand made roti.
Dimi: Oh dear. You're going to make Indian moms around the world redundant!
Rishi: By inventing Rotimatic, we do not wish to replace Indian women in any way, but in contrast, to help them be able to better manage their life and spend more time on the things they love.
Making rotis for our loved ones is a symbol of love, especially in Indian culture. However, with the increasingly busy lifestyle, many, especially women, are struggling to manage both work and family. After a long day at work, spending hours in the kitchen to prepare homemade rotis actually means less quality time spent with their families. Many women also become more stressed if they do not have the health or skill to make fresh homemade rotis for their families everyday. A lot of people have emailed us to say they want to get the machine as a gift for their wives, their moms, their grandmas so that they do not have to worry about roti-making anymore.
Dimi: Tell the hungry people reading this about the smell, texture and taste of a roti that’s fresh out of the Rotimatic!
Rishi: We conducted blind tests where we invited people to taste both the normal homemade rotis and the Rotimatic rotis. The results were encouraging with majority not being able to tell the difference. We have got similar feedback when we ran the Rotimatic demos at CES 2015 and at our headquarter office in Singapore.
Dimi: Rotimatic is Zimplistic’s flagship product. Tell us about Zimplistic and how the Rotimatic fits into Zimplistic’s vision as a kitchen robotics company.
Rishi: Zimplistic is a new age kitchen robotics company driven by the mission to make healthy eating easy, founded in 2008. With the vision of seamlessly integrating consumer robotics with IoT, we are working to bring about a day when families can eat healthy homemade meals without hassle. Rotimatic with its ability to make fresh healthy rotis at a click of a button using state-of-art technology fits nicely into our theme of leveraging technology to help people eat healthier and live better.
Dimi: How is Rotimatic different from a typical griddle roti maker?
Rishi: Rotimatic is the first-of-its-kind which can automatically measure and dispense the ingredients, knead the dough ball, press into thin disc and roast the roti to puffing within one compact system. Everything else you see in the market at the moment requires some kind of human intervention to complete the roti-making process. The industrial solution is the size of a mini-truck while Rotimatic is about the size of a microwave. Another key difference which makes Rotimatic a revolutionary invention is its ability to learn and adjust the flour/water ratio to make better dough over time.
When flour and water are mixed together, the proportion of flour and water to get a consistent dough can’t be fixed because the flour changes with the moisture in the air, the particle size, the protein content, and many other factors. When a human makes dough, the person needs to constantly check the hardness of the doughball by hand and keep correcting it.
To mimic this human judgement in a machine, we developed Adaptive System - a technology which senses the consistency of the dough while water and flour are mixed, and at the same time, keeps track of arrival time and stability time of the dough formation.
Dimi: That's amazing. It’s not easy to create something that conjures up such a rich heritage of skill and dexterity. What’s the biggest technical challenge you guys faced when creating the Rotimatic?
Rishi: Inventing a first-of-its-kind comes with many big first-time challenges. The main challenge was to automate a task which is currently done by the best machine in the world - a human, that too needs a fair bit of practice as roti making is almost an art. We had to engineer technology inside from scratch and design processes without any precedent to follow or improve upon. It needed multiple multidisciplinary innovations to make Rotimatic possible, just like how the first washing machine or computer first came about.
Dimi: Seems like the pre-orders are sold out in the USA and Singapore till 2016. With an estimated retail price of $999 for future orders, is Rotimatic targeting the wealthy Indian diaspora?
Rishi: Any product goes through an evolution timeline. Rotimatic is at its very first phase of the journey, where there is a lot of initial cost involved for R&D, manufacturing setup, etc., therefore the price point and the target market. As we scale up and when there are opportunities to bring the cost down in the future, we will. Our mission is to place Rotimatic in the home of every roti-lover and simplify their lives.
Dimi: Have you guys done an estimate of how many rotis it would take for a buyer to breakeven on the retail price?
Rishi: Each Rotimatic roti is estimated to cost 5c, including electricity and ingredient cost.
Dimi: That's cheap! What’s the size of the waiting list?
Rishi: The waiting list for Rotimatic is worth about USD 98 million from all over the world. The top 2 markets for us are US and India.
Dimi: Should we be expecting a giant Rotimatic for commercial use in the near future?
Rishi: We are focusing all our resources on this version of Rotimatic for household use at the moment. Our passion is also to help families enjoy fresh homemade meals at the comfort of their homes, so no plan for a giant Rotimatic for commercial use just yet!
Dimi: I’m sure retailers are clamouring to have this product on their shelves! Is Zimplistic focusing on selling direct or on developing a network of retailers and distributors?
Rishi: We are planning for direct online model, exclusively on our own website.
Dimi: You guys have just gobbled up a Series B of US$11.5M. Congratulations! How is Zimplistic intending to use this money?
Rishi: Thank you! Zimplistic will use the funds to accelerate manufacturing rollout, fund working capital and set up operations in international markets to fulfill Rotimatic demand.
Dimi: Robert Bosch VC has jumped on the bandwagon in this Series B. This must be exciting for Zimplistic!
Rishi: We are very enthusiastic about our new investors and what they bring to the table here at Zimplistic. It has been an amazing year for us and these new partnerships will only help to improve what we see as a revolutionary product that enables families to eat healthier.
Dimi: What other life-changing kitchen products should we expect from Zimplistic?
Rishi: Currently we are focusing on Rotimatic for roti-making. In the future, we will expand to other flatbread markets such as wraps and tortillas. We also have a team working on Rotimatic wifi-module to enable more exciting feature upgrades and wifi applications to make roti-making more convenient and more fun for the end users. Stay tuned!
Dimi: Any last words for our readers?
Rishi: It’s been a long and challenging journey, but we commit to our mission through thick and thin. We are grateful to have the support from friends, families, partners, investors, customers, and forward thinkers like you guys to enable us to reach the current stage. We will continue working hard to make Rotimatic a reality for millions of roti-lovers all over the world.