Using robotic technology, an engineering student lets tea drinkers create their perfect cuppa
A U of T startup that uses robotic technology to serve up customized cups of looseleaf tea has deployed machines in nine retail outlets, libraries and corporate offices across North America, and is on target to launch some 30 more by year-end, according to one of its co-founders.
Rehman Merali, a PhD student at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, co-founded Teabot three years ago with his high-school friend Brian Lee. Lee’s mother owns a tea shop in Sudbury, Ontario, where the line is often out the door. “His poor mom couldn’t make tea fast enough,” says Merali. “One day, he said, ‘Rehman, you’re a robotics guy, can’t you build a machine that will make a cup of tea faster?’”
As a graduate student, Merali works with Prof. Tim Barfoot, whose lab designs algorithms to help mobile robots move themselves using visual sensors.
At Lee’s mother’s store, Merali learned that the top 10 tea blends account for 80 per cent of her business – and are composed of only a few ingredients each. “We realized that if we could dispense the right amounts of these different ingredients, we could make personalized cups of tea,” says Merali. “Now we had a product that didn’t exist on the market: you can’t go into an ordinary café and order 30 per cent peppermint and 40 per cent rooibos – or whatever you want.”
Today, the Teabot holds 18 types of ingredients, up to three of which can be combined in any proportion for a given cup. Through a touch-screen interface or from a mobile phone app, the user can specify his or her personalized blend and desired water temperature, pay with a credit card and retrieve their brewed cup in 30 seconds. In Toronto, Teabots are located in U of T’s Gerstein library, the MaRS atrium on College Street and at York University.
Merali says the company’s biggest engineering challenge was designing a dispensing mechanism that could handle the unique properties of looseleaf tea. “It’s very delicate, and there are different granularities and sizes. The difference between a rooibos and an oolong is like night and day,” he says. “It would have been so much easier if we could grind it up like coffee, but customers are paying for looseleaf tea, so we had to deliver that experience.”
In recent months, the company has focused on improving the Teabot machines, but it soon plans to allow customers to have packages of their favourite tea blends delivered to their door.
Teabot received support from several business accelerators that are part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem at U of T, including the Creative Destruction Lab and Start@UTIAS.
Watch: A video about Teabot