Printed cupcakes at the push of a button

$100K semifinalists print sweet frosting toppers in 3D

March 21, 2014

Hungry? Cupcakes “printed” by 3Delicious await consumption.

Hungry? Cupcakes “printed” by 3Delicious await consumption.

What would you like on top of your next birthday cake? Maybe a tall Dr. Who TARDIS, or a Breaking Bad Heisenberg hat? How about a custom design from your imagination? Wei Wu, MBA ’15, and Jamison Go, SM ’15, have constructed a 3D printer that extrudes frosting—any kind, in any shape you dictate—onto a cupcake. Their 3Delicious pitch was a semifinalist in the products and services track of this year’s MIT $100K Accelerate Contest, and they were invited back for the wild card round. “I think they have something that could really disrupt the food industry,” says competition judge Gaurav Jain, a principal with the Cambridge-based venture fund Founder Collective.

With the original 3D printing patents expiring in the last couple of years, startups in the space have begun to proliferate—and to cash out. For example, Jain’s firm was a seed-stage investor in MakerBot, which sold last summer to Stratasys for a reported $403 million in stock plus $201 million in earn-outs. “They aim to make 3D printers as universal as inkjet printers,” Jain says.

At the same time, it’s now easier to get the 3D input data than ever before, says Marina Hatsopoulos, SM ‘92, who founded industry pioneer Z Corp. in 1994. “When we started, creating a 3D CAD model required a Silicon Graphics workstation and a seat of Pro Engineer that cost $50,000,” she recalls. “Today you can get started for a fraction of that with a regular PC and Solidworks or Autodesk.”

Wu and Go have put a sweet spin on the trend. Wu, who is from China, worked in materials engineering for Intel for five years; he has a PhD in polymer materials science and engineering from Carnegie Mellon. Go, who’s from Florida, is a master’s student in mechanical engineering. He is also a teaching assistant in mechanical engineering professor Anastasios John Hart’s Additive Manufacturing Technology class. The entrepreneurs met through a mutual friend and discovered shared interests; both had built open-source 3D printers and had wondered about printing something yummy. “These used to be five-figure machines, and now they are $200. Little advances have been made with semi-solids, like chocolate, but you didn’t see it until this year or late last year,” Go says.

Indeed, 3Delicious is not the first to arrive at this party. 3D Systems unveiled a cake decoration printer at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. In 2013, 3D Systems—which bought Hatsopoulos’s Z Corp. in 2012—bought a Los Angeles start-up called The Sugar Lab; its ChefJet is based on the ZPrinting method (“z” being the third axis) developed at MIT. It sprays alternating layers of powdered sugar and water to create interesting edible designs. In contrast, the 3Delicious printer employs the more traditional 3D printing technology of squirting warmed-up material—in this case, gooey, delicious frosting instead of thermoplastic—that solidifies in ambient air. “It’s direct deposit of the material—very simple,” Wu says. “We bought icing from the grocery store.”

Ultimately, the 3Delicious team—who have yet to incorporate—want to build a website that would allow consumers to order custom designs online and pick them up at local bake shops that have purchased the printer. “It would be like a photo printing model,” Wu says. And cupcakes are only the beginning. “We can do full-size cakes later on,” says Go. “If you look around, custom cakes cost several hundred dollars, and there are long lead times.”

Perhaps computer-aided design is the missing ingredient in the bakery business. Hatsopoulos says, “What I like about it is, they’re bringing technology to an industry that typically doesn’t gravitate to it—specialty food, small mom-and-pop shops. It’s a fun use of 3D printing.” Jain agrees. “People like customization, but it’s very labor-intensive and very expensive. Overall, it’s a compelling vertical to go after.”