This week, as Tovala launches their Kickstarter campaign for their new high tech cooker, it could have a sticker that says “Urbana Inside”.

The Tovala cooker looks a lot like a microwave oven, but it actually is a multicooker.  The cooker can microwave, steam, bake, and broil, under precise digital control.  Multicookers have been around in one form or another for a while, but now Tovala is creating one for your home that is extremely simple to use.

Working with chefs and food scientists, Tovala is developing a line of packaged fresh meals that can be delivered to your door.  Each meal has a barcode that loads a program into the cooker from their cloud service into the oven. 

Just scan the meal, put it in, and press “go”.

The Tovala website will initially feature 4-6 meals rotated weekly, which can be ordered through their app for home delivery.

Most of the technology already exists, so Tovala is trying to combine them in “the right way” to create a new and better product. 

I dove into what’s inside the product, and how it came to be.

“Made In Urbana”

Tovala founder David Rabie recalls that when he was busy in business school, it was difficult to find time to get and cook healthy food.  He began to think about how to combine the quality of fresh delivered meals with a “smart kitchen” appliance. After reading Modernist Cuisine (Nathan Myhrvold, Maxime Bilet, 2011), he learned about combination ovens used by professional chefs.  Why not bring this idea to consumers?

Of course, the idea needed to be worked out, which required collaboration with many experts.  David consulted with engineers and food scientists.  He discovered The Product Manufactory (TMP) in Urbana, and engaged with them to help bring the idea to a product. 

David Rabie tells me that this product would “never happened without The Product Manufactory.”  He is effusive in his praise for co-founder Bryan Wilcox, Adam Brakhane, and Peter Fiflis (all recent U of I graduates). “Smart” is one of the adjectives he used.

The Product Manufactory was founded in 2012 by U of I grads Bryan Wilcox and Mercedes Mane (these guys also helped boot up the CU Community Fab Lab). The Product Manufactory team includes designers, engineers and creatives, along everything you need to develop a product from design to manufacturing, TPM describes themselves as “the R&D department [for] businesses that do not have one.”  In their short existence, TPM has helped bring a diverse dozen and more products into reality.

A Visit To The Workshop

In February, I visited with Peter Fiflis at his workbench in The Product Manufactory in Urbana. Peter is finishing a PhD in Nuclear Engineering at U of I, and has been an employee of Tovala for six months.  He was kind enough to show me some prototypes and explain the technology to me.

The cooker employs techniques used in multicookers, which precisely control combinations of heat and humidity at exactly the right timing to cook different food perfectly. Tovala’s digitally controlled system is not only precise, it is very efficient, and can cook food “just right” in record time.

Programming the correct patterns of heat and steam to achieve the right results is not necessarily simple. Tovala engineers have been working with chefs and food scientists to develop optimal programs for their first collection of packaged meals.

Fortunately, a hungry consumer does not need to enter a program or even know the details of the cooking process because the programs are stored on the Internet.  Each meal has a barcode which is scanned by the cooker, which then quickly loads the proper program from the cloud. 

Tovala will have a catalog of meals that you can order a few days in advance. The meal will be shipped fresh and kept refrigerated until you scan and cook it.  Meals will generally cook in 15-30 minutes-the process is much faster than conventional cooking.

The cooker will also have some basic manual controls, so you can do simple stuff like heat leftovers.  In fact, the Tovala unit can, in principle, replace both a toaster oven and a microwave, even without the programmed meals.

Fiflis agreed with my suggestion that designing the cooker to connect to “the cloud” opens the way for many possible services in the future. For example, it would be possible for the service to track preferences and use, in order to send suggestions and notifications of new recipes.

The company has a “development environment”, which it uses to develop their recipes for the cooker with their team of chefs.  I immediately asked if I will be able to program my own recipes, and share them with my friends.  Yes, there will be web-based service for you to program your own recipes for the Tovala.  And there will be a web site to upload and share our Tovala program with others, and some may be selected to be officially distributed by Tovala.

Thanks to Peter and David for taking time to talk with me during this final crunch for their team.