A Keurig-like machine that churns out frozen treats in minutes is setting out to shake up the ice cream industry.
It’s a concept that might sound like it came straight from a kid’s imagination, and, in a sense, it did — Matthew Fonte and his young daughters in Concord dreamed up the concept in their bedtime “invention journals,” where they’d doodle designs for new products (like an entrepreneur’s version of a bedtime story).
When Fonte’s girls, Sierra and Fiona, mentioned the idea of an at-home ice cream machine, he explained that it already existed, albeit with lengthy production times, limited flavor options, and a messy cleanup.
The serial entrepreneur saw his daughters’ disappointment. He also saw a chance to capitalize on a gap in the ice cream market. So in 2018, Fonte founded Billerica-based startup ColdSnap with the goal of transforming the way frozen treats are transported and consumed.
“I think this has the opportunity to really revolutionize, or at least disrupt, the existing ice cream market that hasn’t seen much innovation in decades,” Fonte said.
ColdSnap’s single-serve aluminum pods are each roughly the size of a Red Bull can and deliver a variety of frozen treats, including dairy and non-dairy ice cream, frozen smoothies, frozen cocktails, and more. The recyclable pods are shelf-stable for nine to 12 months.
Once the pod is inserted into the top of the ColdSnap machine, a camera inside reads the pod’s QR code to determine exactly how it should be frozen. Then, using what Fonte calls “a compressor-condenser-evaporator technology,” the machine pulls heat from the pod to flash-freeze the ingredients inside. All of this occurs inside the pod so there’s no cleanup necessary, he added.
After 60 to 120 seconds, the machine dispenses the smooth frozen concoction. Fonte said he has over 30 issued patents related to ColdSnap’s proprietary freezing process and another 65 to 70 pending.
While the process may sound simple (or not), Fonte said it’s never been done before. Freeze too much of the pod, and the frozen treat won’t come out. Freeze too little, and you just get a drippy mess.
“We have to be very careful that we have a repeatable process for everything from mixing the food products to preparing the pod system to making sure the refrigeration system in the appliance is all working together in concert so that we get a product that is pleasurable for the consumer every time,” Fonte said.
Since moving its headquarters from Lexington to Billerica in July 2020, ColdSnap has grown from seven employees to 49, with teams of food scientists, quality control operators, and engineers in a 25,000 square-foot factory.
Of the 24 engineers on the ColdSnap team, 21 have degrees from local New England institutions. Fonte himself holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Tufts.
“We’re very proud that we’re doing this here in Massachusetts,” Fonte said. “I don’t think we could have pulled off what we have already if we didn’t have access to so many talented engineers in such a concentrated area.”
The ColdSnap system also aims to disrupt the ice cream industry’s standard cold chain. Manufacturing and shipping ice cream typically requires keeping it frozen at all times, an expensive and environmentally taxing process. But a machine that freezes pods on-demand changes the equation.
“By eliminating all the freezing, we save tons of money, tons of energy, and we are able to reduce the carbon emissions associated with making ice cream by 35 to 75 percent,” Fonte said.
Investors are intrigued. The company raised nearly $27 million in equity according to a securities filing on Jan. 27. In 2021, it was named an Innovation Award Honoree in the Home Appliances category at the Consumer Electronics Show, a conference showcasing the latest innovations in tech.
Ice cream aficionados looking to get their hands on a ColdSnap machine will have to wait — the company is currently focusing on developing the ColdSnap brand and plans to start sales early this year with about 100 machines for commercial clients in the Boston area, like office break rooms or university cafeterias.
Fonte declined to share pricing details but said the number will depend on purchasing volume; the company is floating the idea of leasing the machines to businesses. Pods will range from $3 to $4 each.
“As we put these first 100 machines out in the Boston area, we’ll analyze how the machines are working,” Fonte said. “Is anything breaking? If so, we’ll fix it, and we’ll understand which flavors people like, what’s the consumption rate per day, how many vanilla ice creams versus chocolate ice creams versus smoothies.”
The company will likely work on sizing down the machine for a home kitchen (it’s currently 50 pounds), but Fonte said he could also imagine a large version with multiple heads to dispense different frozen concoctions at once, used for large venues like stadiums. Any way you look at it, Fonte has big dreams for the startup that began in his daughters’ imaginations.
“I hope that there’ll be a ColdSnap machine in every house eventually,” he said. “What we are offering is a real, delicious product.”