Innovation Economy

Art for the average joe

Can technology that prints on coffee gather steam?

By Scott Kirsner
December 7, 2008
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In the 1940s, a Cambridge consulting firm called Bolt Beranek and Newman was asked to design the acoustics of the United Nations General Assembly Hall. In the 1960s, it helped build some of the earliest infrastructure for the ArpaNet, the precursor to the Internet. In the 1970s, a researcher at the company sent the very first e-mail message.

Last year, another researcher at the firm, now known as BBN Technologies, developed an entirely new communications medium with the potential to render obsolete the Internet, movable type, and wireless telephony: Working in his free time, he figured out how to print text and images in edible caramel on the surface of a café latte.

OK, perhaps latte printing is not quite as revolu tionary as some of BBN's earlier breakthroughs. But it's incredibly fun.

A video showing the first prototype printer in action has been viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube. The founders of OnLatte Inc. have put comic strips, kitty cats, flying horses, and corporate logos on cups of coffee, and they've printed Barack Obama's face on the head of a glass of Guinness (the brew is foamy enough for printing).

The company has been invited to the prestigious Siggraph trade show, which brings together computer graphics gurus from around the world, and received coverage from newspapers and TV shows from across the globe without the help of a public relations firm.

But the big questions for the two entrepreneurs trying to get OnLatte off the ground are whether there's a business here, and who will back it.

Oleksiy Pikalo had heard about latte art, where baristas make their own designs in coffee and milk through deft pouring of the dairy product.

He even drank some, as a patron of Darwin's near Harvard Square. But as an electrical engineer, he thought technology might be able to take latte art to a new level. In the evening hours at his office, he started trying to figure out how to print on foamy milk.

Lasers didn't work: "I thought I could burn the foam with lasers and turn it brown, but the bubbles just explode," Pikalo says.

He got better results with caramel food coloring. It was thin enough to be spritzed through a standard ink-jet printer head; the printer head could be moved around using a plotter device he bought on eBay.

"Assembling the components took quite a bit of time," he says. One night during the summer of 2007, he went to a nearby Starbucks and bought a latte, ready to do a test run. "My colleagues came by and took a video with their digital camera," he says.

They captured the printer laying Starbucks' mermaid logo down atop the foam. Once Pikalo had filed a provisional patent for the printer, he posted the video on YouTube, and before long, YouTube's editors made it one of their "featured videos," attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers.

Suddenly, Pikalo was hearing from coffee shop owners and equipment distributors interested in obtaining a latte printer of their own.

OnLatte took a second-generation printer to a biotech conference in October, where Bedford-based Millipore Corp. used it in its booth. "It was a way for us to engage in a conversation with people while they're waiting for their coffee, and introduce ourselves," says Elaine Fitzpatrick, an exhibits specialist at the company. "It absolutely created a buzz." Later this month, OnLatte will demonstrate the printer at the Field Pub in Cambridge.

The possibilities at bars are intriguing. Josh Grob, OnLatte's director of products and services, says he has printed phone numbers atop glasses of beer. Would men on the make pay an extra buck to have their digits emblazoned on a Bass? Another idea is e-mailing a photo of a friend from a cellphone to the printer. Companies promoting a new product might offer free drinks, in exchange for the right to print a message on top.

A deal with Starbucks Corp., or a rival coffee chain, is the ultimate dream. Might a "photo of the day," horoscope, or headline printed onto a morning cappuccino engender greater customer loyalty?

"My first instinct is that it seems really cool," says Liza Baer-Kahn, co-owner of Crema Café in Harvard Square. "but I don't know if it's extremely practical."

OnLatte is trying to build the printer for less than $1,000. Right now, it takes anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute to print atop a latte, but Pikalo thinks he can get that down to four or five seconds.

Pikalo and Grob hope to raise at least $200,000 to be able to start converting existing printers into latte printers and making their special caramel cartridges; more money would enable them to develop a specialized device of their own. (For his next trick, Pikalo is working on a hand-held printer that wouldn't take up counter space.)

The other possibility, if they can't find investors, is to simply continue to compile a list of interested buyers and see if they'd be willing to help bankroll the venture. By the end of next year, they hope to have a production printer that people can purchase. Neither Grob nor Pikalo have yet given up their day jobs.

John Landry, an angel investor who has seen OnLatte's technology at work, says, "I really respect their innovation and creativity, but the business model here is really unknown. Ergo, investors have to be convinced."

I suggested that a few pints of Guinness might help do the convincing. Landry just laughed: "Booze is certainly one approach."

Scott Kirsner can be reached at

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