Only in Silicon Valley does a longtime tech startup founder find a second career in a chocolate-making robot.
Nate Saal studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University after graduating from Palo Alto High School in 1990. After returning to Palo Alto, he quickly shifted from science to the internet, founding what he says was the first web-based software updating service in 1996. He went on to start more technology companies and later worked for CNET and Cisco.
But these days, he's immersed in chocolate -- specifically, chocolate made by a countertop device that he created called CocoTerra. The sleek white device, which looks like a large, futuristic coffee maker, uses algorithms, hardware and a smartphone app to transform cocoa nibs, milk powder, cocoa powder and sugar into chocolate in about two hours.
Saal has high hopes for the machine, which has yet to be released. In the age of automation, where robots are making pizza and ramen and delivering our food, he sees CocoTerra as doing something different: using technology to deepen rather than disrupt people's connection to how their food is made.
"We're not trying to slap technology for technology's sake on top of that to abstract it away, to take creativity away," he said. "We're trying to actually create a whole new category of people who can now make chocolate."
While Saal's professional career has focused on technology, he has always filled his weekends with homegrown food experiments, like keeping bees and growing grapes and olives to make wine and olive oil from scratch. He's fascinated by the "deep science" of these activities.
Making chocolate, however, was not in his repertoire. It wasn't until he took his brother-in-law, who works in the coffee business, to a chocolate tasting several years ago, and a conversation about the similarities between the two industries got him thinking. His brother hypothesized that home coffee machines have allowed more people to understand and appreciate coffee in a way that chocolate hasn't experienced. People did make chocolate at home, but it was a lengthy process that required having several expensive appliances, he found.
"There's a bread machine, an ice cream maker and a juicer and a pasta maker and a tea brewer and a coffee maker -- every major food category has a home appliance. What I discovered very quickly was there is no such thing (for chocolate)," Saal said.
He educated himself by going to chocolate-making classes, including a boot camp at Madre Chocolate in Hawaii. Back in Palo Alto, he and a team got to work designing a device that could combine all steps in the chocolate-making process -- grinding, refining, conching, tempering and molding -- in one machine. It typically grinds the single-origin cocoa nibs for about half an hour, using stainless steel balls, then refines the cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder. Conching is the "slow manipulation or agitation of chocolate at elevated temperatures to help drive off some undesired flavors," said Chief Operating Officer Karen Alter. Named for conch shell-shaped equipment, this is part of the process is often on display during chocolate factory tours, she said, with large vats that have paddles slowly moving liquid chocolate.
The next step, tempering, involves cooling the ingredients to a specific temperature that will create a specific structure of seed crystal in the cocoa butter molecules, Saal enthusiastically explained. The crystals solidify, creating shiny, hard chocolate. A patented centrifuge inside the machine cools and spins the chocolate to remove bubbles.
The final result is a ring-shaped, half-pound mold of chocolate, rather than the traditional rectangular bar.
On the back end, technology allows a level of customization that CocoTerra's creators hope will make the device as appealing for experts as for novices. A cloud-based recipe system, accessible online or via an app, guides you from start to finish in a recipe. People can either default to CocoTerra's recipes, such as 62% dark chocolate or milk chocolate with almonds, or customize them, from level of sweetness and creaminess, to added flavors and ingredients, to the tempering temperature. People can easily control for allergies or dietary restrictions.
CocoTerra will sell the base ingredients directly to customers, focusing on fair trade, ethically grown nibs, or people can use their own. Those who are advanced enough to roast and shell their own cacao beans could still do that, put them into the machine and then create their own recipes.
Producing quality chocolate in two hours is "jaw-dropping" to many in the chocolate industry, Saal said.
"I thought they were totally crazy when I first talked to them on the phone," John Scharffenberger told CNBC. Scharffenberger, who co-founded Scharffen Berger in San Francisco in 1997 before small batch, artisan chocolate was a thing, is now a CocoTerra investor and calls it "a natural extension of the craft chocolate movement."
The company won't disclose a price for the machine, which they claim is the world's first tabletop chocolate maker. CocoTerra has raised more than $2 million in investments and is now focused on a larger round to fund the release of the device.
"This is about the evolution of technology to make chocolate. But it's also making it accessible," Saal said. "We're bringing that to people by using smart mechanical engineering and software to make it accessible so that you can actually now focus on things like the flavor and recipe and the look and the design and the craft of it."