Longtime cooking technology entrepreneur Scott Heimendinger announced today he was leaving Modernist Cuisine to launch a new startup where he will develop kitchen technology.
Heimendiger made the announcement he was leaving his employer of the last four years via tweet:
— Seattle Food Geek (@seattlefoodgeek) February 14, 2020
I decided to catch up with Heimendinger to discuss his plans post-Modernist Cuisine. While the founder of Sansaire and kitchen tech hired gun is planning to keep what he will be building under wraps for the near future, he did give me some hints about the general direction and also shared his thoughts on the need for innovation in the kitchen tech space.
Answers have been edited for brevity.
You’re starting something in kitchen tech. Is it hardware?
Can talk about the idea or do you need to protect the IP first?
Like so many products, protecting IP is necessary to ward off competitors. I will be really vague about what it is. I still need to invent my way through the idea. Once I do and the patents are filed and my attorney says it’s ok, I can’t wait to scream from the mountaintops about it.
Is it cooking equipment?
It’s in the kitchen. It’s something that you will use in the kitchen. A physical product that you can use in the kitchen that will improve your experience of cooking.
Is this an idea that came to you in the middle of the night or over years?
It’s a little of both. For better or worse, I get flashes of ideas over time. Most of them are silly or throw away. Every now and then there is an idea that sticks in my head. When I knew I was feeling the gravitational pull of wanting to go entrepreneurial again, I asked ‘What will be something I want to do and something that is feasible for me to do?’
You can rule out tons of stuff because it’s a cool idea, but it requires a ton of money. Or, it’s a cool idea or there’s no way to defend from competition. Eventually I ran out of reasons to rule out the idea. It was a pretty deliberate process to convince myself this idea was worth taking a leap for.
Did you learn anything from Sansaire experience?
Sure hope so (laughs). As you know, the end of my story in consumer sous vide was not the happiest story. I walked away from Sansaire and the company shuttered.
What Sansaire did do is help me understand why people are serial entrepreneurs. There are all these things you have to figure out.
It’s a big scary monster. It’s in the dark. But once you shine a flashlight on it and look it in the eye, you realize it’s hard but not scary.
The biggest thing I have now compared to when I started Sansaire is the confidence of having done it once and knowing what to expect.
Have you gotten funding?
No, and I hope I can bring this idea to life without outside funding. When I was at Sansaire, we did a Kickstarter and that’s how the business got going. But at some point, we tried to raise money because we were outgunned by bigger players with more money.
I had a very bad experience trying to raise money. It was emotionally taxing, hugely time consuming. And, frankly, if I get to choose, I’d rather focus my time on trying to make good products or make happy customers than do all the things you have to do to fundraise.
Are you starting this company solo or with partners?
Solo. If I can get away with it, that is how I hope that it will continue to be, at least for a while until it requires more people.
That is an intentional choice. I have a lot of OCD tendencies, tend to be a perfectionist and very tidy about things. When it’s just me, there’s no one to say “that’s enough”. I get to be the last word on perfection.
Anything you learned from your time at Modernist Cuisine?
When I left previously, there was a project I always wanted to bring to life which was in turn the content of the Modernist Cuisine books into a TV show. Basically Planet Earth for food. I was never able to do that the first time. I got a call when I left Sansaire, saying hey, ‘Nathan is really interested in doing this. Do you want to come back and make a show?’
Sadly, it hasn’t worked out. For one reason or another we were never able to land it. I hope someone else in my absence can do it. A TV show that really explains the science of how cooking works in a visual and scientific way is something the world needs, but it was time for me to move on.
So what have I learned? I’ve become a much better engineer. While I’ve been here, not only have I gotten to learn about cinematography. I’ve also become a much better electrical engineer and software engineer. I’ve become much better at a bunch of disciplines.
Did consulting for Anova on their smart oven contribute to getting your entrepreneurial juices flowing?
Yes it did. It reminded me how much I love working on problems where we put ourselves in the mind of the user. I love working with the team at Anova because we’re all focused on how do we make the best design decisions to create the best experience for someone using this product. That turns out to be something I didn’t know I was missing so much.
There have been some struggles in kitchen hardware. Why are you optimistic?
Part of the reason I’m optimistic is circular logic. I am optimistic because I have to be. I wouldn’t decide to take the plunge into the space again if I weren’t optimistic. I am making a bunch of assumptions and have to hope they work out.
The most substantive answer to your question is the smart kitchen industry has gone through a phase where being smart meant adding Wi-Fi and a mobile app. In some cases, that was really useful and delivered value to the customer. In other cases, it wasn’t. It was for the sake of doing it, or it was maybe to satisfy an investor. That makes me sad.
We haven’t conquered improving the kitchen. It is not a solved problem. There are a thousand things that can be done better that could lead to a better experience cooking.
I also think there is a lot of opportunity to make things smart that is not just adding Wi-Fi or an app to it. There is an opportunity to improve all sorts of things we are doing in the kitchen.
My favorite type of technology in the whole world is technology that is invisible. I have a Samsung Frame TV and when you turn it off, it doesn’t become a big black rectangle, but instead it shows art. It disappears and becomes art. I love that.
What are some things you think are exciting in terms of how cooking can change over the next couple of years in cooking innovation?
It seems like there is sustained excitement and enthusiasm about cooking. For the segment of the population that does cook at home, that seems like it is a lasting part of their identity and it makes me excited that someone wants to do something because they love the craft of it.
Is there any space in cooking that is particularly ripe for innovation?
Think some of my favorite surprises comes out of material science. Cooking is intrinsically linked to the materials we use. Look at how silicone has transformed what we are doing. At the International Housewares Association (IHA) there is this little corner of companies experimenting in materials and it makes me excited because it’s science fiction.
Thanks for taking time today to talk about what’s next.