- Barney Wragg is co-founder and CEO of Karakuri, a UK-based startup that uses robotics to prepare fresh, personalized meals for restaurants, commercial kitchens and caterers faster and more efficiently.
- Karakuri has created two robots called ‘Marley’ and ‘DK-One’, which can mass-produce meals by measuring out precise quantities of ingredients and even numbers of calories.
- Karakuri was born out of Founders Factory, the startup accelerator set up by European entrepreneur Brent Hoberman. Hoberman is a cofounder, and helped the firm raise $9 million in May.
- Wragg has an unconventional background, having worked as a DJ promoter and music technologist before getting into robotics.
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Barney Wragg isn’t your stereotypical tech entrepreneur.
As a senior executive at Universal Studios, Wragg worked as a consultant for pop legends such as Kate Bush and Robbie Williams. As a young man, he set up a business promoting nightclubs and DJs. And, in an age when Soylent is an established Silicon Valley staple, he doesn’t hesitate to call himself a "foodie."
It is this passion for food that drives Wragg’s current company, Karakuri, which derives from the Japanese word meaning ‘awe-inspiring’.
Karakuri uses robotics to give restaurants, commercial kitchens and catering services a way of creating customised, carefully-portioned meals to precise specifications.
Wragg won’t name clients, but says the startup is working with a major high street chain that has hundreds of restaurants around the UK.
Wragg cofounded the firm in 2018 along with fellow entertainment tech veteran Simon Watt and Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman.
Last May, it raised $9 million in a seed funding round led by Ocado, a major British online food retailer with an interest in robotics. Hoberman’s early-stage investment firm, Firstminute Capital, was another of the seed investors.
To date, Karakuri has built two robot chefs, called "Marley" and "DK-One."
DK-One is designed for high-volume catering applications, boasting 48 ‘ingredient dispensers’. It places ingredients into meal containers such as bowls or boxes at high speed, while also controlling their temperature.
According to Karakuri’s website, DK-One can "easily support different cuisines such as Indian, Thai, Chinese and salad bowls."
Marley, meanwhile, is marketed as a "lower-cost, lower throughput alternative" to DK-One. It can be used to produce items such as ice creams and cocktails, and for tasks like dispensing candy. Both Marley and DK-One can handle multiple orders simultaneously.
Wragg’s interest in robotics stems from being in the music industry just as it was being disrupted by tech
Wragg’s journey looks a little unconventional, but technology has always loomed over his career.
"Prior to going to college, I’d always been very passionate about music, and had a little business in the north of England promoting nightclubs and booking DJs to do bits and pieces," he said.
Wragg went on to work in music-related technology for a range of major firms, including ARM, the UK chip designer that helped pave the way for the smartphone revolution.
"When I was at ARM, the conversion to MP3 was just starting to happen. This was a time when not everybody inside the business would even have a computer on their desk," Wragg said. "The idea that the transformation which Napster was starting was coming at them and as fast and aggressively as it was, was really, really alien to some people.
The disruption didn’t put him off, however. "I stayed in the entertainment business right up until my role at The Really Useful Group [the media production company founded by Andrew Lloyd Webber]."
But after nearly two decades working at the intersection of tech and entertainment, Wragg finally turned to entrepreneurship.
Wragg, a self-described ‘foodie’, pitched Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman after noting his interest in food-related robotics
"As I came out of the Really Useful Group in 2016, I looked at things and thought – certainly in the music industry – that the role of technology was starting to stabilize," he says. "So I took some time out to look at different opportunities. I spent some time with different VC funds in London."
His induction into venture capital and the European tech world came after spending some time with Saul and Robin Klein, founders of investors LocalGlobe and some of the best-networked investors in Europe.
Eventually Wragg landed on Founders Factory, the London-based venture capital firm and startup accelerator cofounded by Henry Lane Fox and serial entrepreneur Brent Hoberman.
Founders Factory was launched with the aim of getting 200 startups off the ground by 2021, and sometimes pairs its startups with its corporate backers.
"I started to look at what Brent and Henry were doing at Founders Factory. A lot of what was making me interested in technology was what was happening with neural networks; what was happening with artificial intelligence; what you could start to use that for.
"What I also found really interesting was the mechatronic side of things; the internet of things becoming real – be that robotics or sensors or detectors; things that could change the physical environment we work in.
Wragg says that his interests in the service and delivery side of entertainment, and in food – he describes himself as a "foodie" – pushed him towards Founders Factory.
"When Founders Factory was starting to look at a role for robotics in customer service; in food service; in restaurants – that was what triggered the conversation I had with Brent.
"That was the genesis of Karakuri: a personal interest combined with a belief that there was a commercial opportunity to do something that’s good for consumers, and has a positive impact environmentally, particularly in the reduction of food waste."
‘We’re living in a world where, even for their lunchtime salad, people are moving towards a click-and-collect model’
Karakuri’s arrival coincides with wider public interest in saving the planet, and massive disruption to the way we eat food. On-demand food delivery is changing expectations around how and what people consume.
What Karakuri wants to do is make busy canteen services such as buffets, restaurants and ready-to-eat food services able to serve more people in less time, while also exerting greater control over portion sizes, ingredient amounts and calorie counts.
"What you see with Marley and with DK-One is the evolution of a concept for a specific market problem," he explains.
"That problem is: how do you take a traditional canteen service – like what you might have for your school dinners, or what you might see in a burrito bar, or a buffet, where you have a linear flow of people going through – and improve it?
"More particularly, how do you improve it in a way where, by being very specific about the quantities and portion sizes, you can allow the customer to design their own meal? How do you do that in a way that still allows a sensible throughput of people through a reasonable commercial restaurant?"
Wragg adds that the problem will only intensify as more and more people order their meals online.
"We’re living in a world where, even for their lunchtime salad, people are moving towards a click-and-collect model. People are either ordering what they want to collect at their desk, or they’re in-store ordering off a tablet, or even ordering what they want to collect on their way to collect it.
"We see a really big opportunity to improve [things] for the consumers, the operators, the suppliers and the whole ecosystem, by just being much smarter about how that industry works and really using the technology that’s available to us."
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