Food tech startup Tovala announces $500,000 in seed funding

1/19/2016

Mike Koon, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

Thanks to the work of the food tech startup Tovala, kitchens across the country are closer to an appliance, which promises individual, gourmet meals in less than 30 minutes.

Tuesday, Tovala announced $500,000 in seed funding from Midwest investors led by Origin Ventures with participation from Valor Equity, New Stack Ventures and a series of strategic angel investors, including Mark Tebbe, Patrick Cadariu, Craig Wortmann, and Michael Staenberg. Previous investors include the Pritzker Venture Capital Group and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. 

Tovala is perhaps the most visible result to date of the partnership between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Engineering and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Last spring Tovala; under the name Maestro earned the University of Chicago’s annual New Venture Challenge first prize. Its founder, David Rabie, was finishing an MBA from Chicago and dubbed his fledgling creation “a Keurig meets crockpot.”

Also last spring, the startup BreakfastBox was a finalist for the Cozad New Venture Challenge, sponsored by the University of Illinois’ Technology Entrepreneur Center. BreakfastBox, led by Peter Fiflis, a PhD student in nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering, promised breakfast cooked to order each morning for consumers. One of the judges of Cozad was notable entrepreneur Mark Tebbe, an Illinois graduate in computer science, the chairman of ChicagoNext, and an adjunct professor at Booth. He helped introduce the two teams and Rabie quickly hired Fiflis as its product development engineer.

A native of Los Angeles, Rabie’s background is mostly in the food industry. He was a team leader of a small chain of vegan restaurants called the Veggie Grill and ran a bi-coastal chain of frozen yogurt’s stores called Groovy Spoon Frozen Yogurt. Rabie attended Booth with the hopes of launching his own food technology company. He and his co-founder Bryan Wilcox began work on what is now Tovala. Wilcox, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, completed his PhD in mechanical science and engineering from Illinois in 2013 and started The Product Manufactory in 2012, where he continues to serve as President.

“All of our engineering talent is either out of the U of I or closely tied to the U of I,” said Rabie, who was a part of the first collaboration between Booth and Engineering at Illinois in October of 2014. “That meeting opened my eyes to the potential and I kept my ears to the ground for engineering talent from Urbana-Champaign. It is something that we are particularly proud about, especially considering our investors are tied to both universities.”

In addition to announcing its seed investors and its rebranding under the name Tovala (a combination of the Italian word for table, “tavola,” and the Hebrew word for good, “tov”), the company is offering an opportunity to become a Beta tester and become a member of its Founder’s Club with a $10 deposit. Those members will be the first to be notified of the crowd funding campaign and the first ones able to access the best price on the finished product, which will retail between $299-$399.

“We’re not ready to commit to a ship date,” Rabie said. “We’ll have a better sense of that in a month or two.”

Tovala is targeting urban professionals and partnering with food companies. Consumers literally will the have option of thousands of meal choices and the opportunity to sign up for meal plans, which are designed to serve 1-4 people. All the ingredients necessary -- raw, pre-prepped and made from scratch – will be delivered to their doors. Examples of recipes available include ginger pork with rice noodles, roast chicken with a fall vegetable medley, and chicken pozole with avocado.

When the user is ready to heat, they just need to take it out of the refrigerator, scan the bar code and insert the food. The appliance will get information from the cloud on how to prepare it, which could be a combination of baking, broiling, steaming and convection heating. It will have accurate temperature controls over each of those functions and have the ability to automatically switch between them. Users will get a push notification on their phone when the meal is ready to eat.

“We’re taking a heating technology that has existed in high-end commercial kitchens for quite some time and basically bringing that to the consumer space and automating it,” Rabie said. “Right now people have to make a compromise. Either they are sacrificing health, taste or convenience when making their food choices. The goal with Tovala is to solve for all of those equations. We are offering high end, healthy meals that are cooked fresh at a convenience that just doesn’t exist today. That is a problem we are tying to solve.”