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Since tea, sweetened milk, syrup, and tapioca balls were first combined at a tea shop in Taiwan in 1986, bubble or boba tea had grown into a $5.3 billion market by last year, according to Analytical Research Cognizance. However, the food-service industry is facing record closures because of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Bobacino today emerged from stealth mode as it works to bring boba tea to a growing global audience using automation. The startup has also launched a crowdfunding campaign.
To stay open during the COVID-19 crisis, restaurants have cut menu options by 7% because of social distancing in the kitchen and high traffic drive-through lines, said Bobacino. The increase in delivery and takeout services have made custom ordering a labor- and time-intensive task. However, 44% of customers said they miss trying new menu items and sharing food experiences that restaurants once offered before the pandemic, according to the company.
Santa Monica, Calif.-based Future Pearl Labs Inc., doing business as Bobacino, includes robotics and food experts with experience from Miso Robotics, SpaceX, and Microsoft Corp. It said it is working to provide customers with more menu options, as well as a low-touch experience.
“We are seeing robots and automation offer a path for operators facing pandemic challenges and the ordering concerns customers have today,” stated Darian Ahler, CEO of Bobacino. “Through Bobacino’s fully automated boba tea bar, consumers are able to enjoy a beverage prepared by an entirely touchless and AI-powered robot – minimizing exposure to pathogens, while providing them with a drink designed to taste the way they want it to taste.”
Bobacino automates tea bar
Fast-casual restaurant operators are struggling to keep menus appealing, and consumers are seeking more customizable beverage choices crafted with minimal contact in a post-pandemic world, said Bobacino. The company said it can deliver a fully automated boba tea bar equipped with multiple flavor options and fresh and organic ingredients in a standalone machine.
“Bobacino combines artificial intelligence, robotics, and sensors to automate boba tea creation,” Ahler told The Robot Report.. “Through an interactive screen, Bobacino customers can order and completely customize their favorite boba tea flavor by selecting their desired kind of milk, sweetener, and tapioca pearls. This is really the only physical contact point beyond actually collecting the drink.”
“A fully automated robotic arm receives the order,” he said. “This gives Bobacino the flexibility to move between stations to pour the ingredients in the right order. Once the order is made, the AI platform and sensor technology kick in to identify and grab the cup holding it with its special gripper.”
“It’s able to then navigate to an ice dispenser that releases the desired amount of ice, and then the cup is placed under two electronically controlled tabs that pour the perfect amount of milk, boba, tea, and syrup,” said Ahler. “The machine has a built-in refrigeration system, which keeps everything cold and fresh. It’s all controlled on the back end through the AI platform, which monitors levels to ensure everything functions smoothly and is restocked as needed.”
“Once all the cold and refrigerated items are dispensed into the cup, the robotic arm takes the cup to a special thermal heat sealer area with a safety filter,” he explained. “The cup is sealed perfectly to avoid any spills and ensure quality before it is extracted through a slot for a customer or operator’s employee to grab. The arm even gives it a like shake before it comes out for a final touch of consistency in taste.”
Boba demand growing
Both global food automation and the demand for boba tea are growing, said Bobacino. The boba tea market will reach $8.4 billion by 2024, predicted Analytical Research Cognizance. According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., 87% of American millennials drink tea, and a recent study on delivery orders found that brown sugar milk, or bubble tea, was among the most ordered food items in the U.S. in 2019, growing 281% from the previous year.
Increasing food-safety requirements and technological advances are also driving the rapid adoption of automation across the food and restaurant industry, according to Bobacino. The company cited a recent survey that found that 95% of restaurant owners have seen a significant boom in their business since they have embedded technology in their processes.
While 80% of customers planned to avoid restaurants during the pandemic, 66% were more likely to order from a restaurant if it communicated that it had implemented safety measures, Bobacino said.
Timeframe for development, commercialization
Bobacino is working hard to bring its automated bubble tea bar to market.
“Our current prototype is already up and running — it took approximately five months to build,” said Ahler. “Right now, it is capable of preparing one boba tea flavor, but that will quickly change.”
“Our goal is to roll out our commercial availability version in the second half of next year,” he added. “This version will offer three popular tea flavors: Chai Chai, Matcha Maker, and Pearl Grey. Organic milk is an option, and customers can opt to include less or more of it, or none at all. The same goes for the sweetener and boba pearls.”
“Our forward-looking vision is to continue to expand our flavor offering and ingredient options to deliver a customizable and memorable experience to our customers that compliments their individual dietary preferences,” Ahler said. “Our plan is to hit commercial availability next year.”
Bobacino seeks more backers
Bobacino’s investors include Embark Ventures, a robotics and AI-focused venture capital firm; Wavemaker Partners, a global venture capital fund with $400 million in assets under management; and Wavemaker Labs, an automation-focused venture studio.
The company has launched a crowdfunding campaign for its seed capital on StartEngine. Equity crowdfunding is intended to enable individual investors to participate in the development of innovative technologies large upfront costs. Reservations are available through the company’s Web site.
“Boba is unlike any other drink out there, and the future of beverage automation is upon us,” Ahler said. “Bringing a beloved beverage together with robotics is truly exciting. We want to make boba more accessible to those who regularly enjoy the boba experience and open the door for more consumers to give boba a try, without concerns of contamination.”