Ready, Set, Cereal!
Updated: Apr 24
This is the story of building a robotic cereal dispenser and how a joke that got a little out of hand, blossomed into accidentally starting a company.
The rest of what became my team had all met volunteering with the Sacramento Brigade of Code for America. The goal of which was to build open-source projects to help the government be more transparent and work better with and for it's citizens. They had even teamed up before to win a hackathon (AngelHack) at the Urban Hive with an open-source conservation app called Leaflr. It let you calculate how much you could be saving (in money, gas and carbon emissions) by biking your commute instead of driving.
Having already experienced what it was like to win a hackathon, they thought "let's try going the other way."
So they called me...
The next hackathon was at our local makerspace Hacker Lab. As a clever way to not have to pay to cater the event, Hacker Lab's solution was "eat cereal, nerds." And they had named the event "Cereal Hack" for the only food they had available during the 30hr hackathon.
With no motivation other than chasing joy, our team brainstormed what absurd unnecessary product we could put together. While other people would be showing off their apps, we thought it would be funnier if, when we went to present, we instead dropped a ridiculous machine onto the table. I learned later that the joyful creation of inventions that cause more problems than they solve has a name in Japan, Chindōgu. For something to be a Chindōgu, it needs to adhere to 10 tenets including needing to "have resulted only from an exercise of humor" and having "a spirit of anarchy."
As an homage to the hackathon, the group landed on the idea for an app-controlled cereal dispenser and we started sketching out the idea onto a Buffalo Wild Wings menu.
The final product would allow users to mix and match from three different types of cereal, specify your desired quantity of milk and whether or not you needed a spoon (I guess we were expecting some people to just want to dive in face first). After ordering on the app you would set your bowl down over a light sensor, a Raspberry Pi would pull your order from a queue, then motors would turn and valves would open and everything would come spilling out into your bowl.
Andy Axton crammed all the buzzwordy features he could into the app. Social media integration to post your breakfast habits, gamification to allow users to earn badges like "Spoonologist" or "Cereal Killer" as they leveled up and ate their way to an early grave.
Meritt decided that marine animals were a grossly underrepresented minority in the world of breakfast cereal mascots and designed us a narwal. I think he named him "Norman."
Emma and Kaleb worked on wiring up the electronics, setting up the backend, and getting all the information to flow from the digital world of Meritt and Andy's ridiculous app into the physical. For my part, I rushed to design and fabricate the mechanical bits and figure out how we could make do with material on hand.
Thanks to a handy laser cutter, the design and fabrication of structure went together very quick. Each 90 degree rotation of a stepper motor would dispense exactly 1 cup (a serving) of cereal so we could give users accurate nutritional info in the app. But, since we're Americans, the app wouldn't let you choose any less than two servings. The milk and spoon were trickier. For the spoon we picked up a cafeteria style Dixie brand spoon dispenser, ripped off the hand lever and mounted a servo so we could fire it electronically. It turned out Dixie had designed their machine so that it would only accept proprietary Dixie spoons. After running around trying and failing to find the right spoons, I spent an embarrassing amount of my 30hrs filing down parts of the dispenser until the spoons we had worked.
For milk we attempted to make it work with a solenoid valve we had on hand. This would open and close when 12V were applied. So, to dispense the correct amount of milk, you needed to calculate how long to keep the valve open. Simple enough, the volume dispensed would be the velocity of the milk times the cross-sectional area times the amount of time the valve was open.
V = vAΔT
But, the exit velocity of the milk is affected by quite a few things. It varies with the pressure (the amount of milk we had left in the reservoir), the viscosity of the milk (2% flows faster than Whole), even temperature turned out to have a pretty non-trivial effect on how the milk flows. In the end, we skipped the math and scrapped the feature because the solenoid valve also ended up requiring more pressure to function than gravity provided. To have succeeded would have been a bit unsanitary and likely unpleasant to clean. The better solution would have been to use a fancy peristaltic pump but we had to save that for another iteration. You can't always have everything in a messy prototype.
At the end of 30hrs, we were surprised to find... it sort of worked.
In an over the top satire of a startup pitch, we presented our machine to a panel of judges as if it were the cure for world hunger. With a barely straight face Emma announced "We are making the world a better place, one bowl at a time." When the judges asked "what's your plan to turn a profit" we kinda shrugged and looked at them as if to ask "you understand this is a joke, right?" Then the judges started throwing out suggestions themselves about how they could see it in a candy store or bar or college cafeteria.
We accidentally won the hackathon.
Besides winning some dubious prizes like AWS credits and all the leftover cereal, we were given our very own lawyer. His name was Bosley (still is but it was then too) and he had graciously donated an incorporation package to the winners. Since it seemed to make more sense to become a company than not to, we became Rocket Dept. And I went very quickly from mostly strangers with this team to business partners and almost family.
Afterwards, we polished up our machine and took it to Maker Faire in San Mateo (a giant nerd event pulling in around 180,000 people) where we spent 3-4 days talking and laughing until we lost our voices. At one point I chatted with an engineer looking guy in a SpaceX shirt for 15-20 minutes before finally asking what he did at SpaceX. He responded "nothing really, I'm on the board." Turned out he was a billionaire who builds rockets on the weekends, funds many of Elon Musk's crazy ideas and drives around in the first Model S to ever come off the line. Topping the weekend off, they pinned a Maker Faire Editor's Choice Ribbon on our beautiful, ridiculous machine.
Over the next few years we created apps, helped people fabricate and launch prototypes, designed and built a variety of custom installations (see Obelisk, Prism). We worked with Uber, PBS and the Sacramento Kings and spun out our own line of educational soldering kits into a successful and self-sustaining business. Our team has since gone their own ways to tackle new and interesting challenges but will always share the creativity, humor and adventure that brought us together to cover the floors of Hacker Lab with cereal.