5 Disruptive Takeaways from Food Edge 2018

IMG_5504.JPG

Here at Branchfood, we like to say, “Innovation will fix the food system.” Another way to put this is, “Disruption will innovate the food system.” Last week, innovation and disruption were on full display at the first-ever Food Edge Summit, a two-day “meeting of the food minds” in Boston’s Seaport District that brought together the entrepreneurs, scientists, thought leaders, and chefs who envision a food system that is safer, tastier, simpler, and better for all.

If you were among the hundreds who packed into the more than 20 talks and panels at Food Edge, you left with a notebook full of inspiration and tips -- and hopefully a stack of business cards -- to give new energy for your entrepreneurial food journey. If you couldn’t join us, we took the liberty of condensing roughly 16 hours of content and networking into five key takeaways. This is obviously not a comprehensive list, but our hope is that it provides the spark a food disruptor needs -- and, hopefully, entices you to join us at Food Edge 2019!

Food disruption starts with people.
In the very first session at Food Edge, Jamie Scheu and Ben Little from presenting sponsor Hill Holliday shared from their well of experience in food marketing and design thinking. “Start with people,” Ben told us, “then come up with ideas and develop prototypes. Think from the lens of human moments.” The best products -- the ones that simplify a common action in the kitchen or put a healthy meal on the tables of busy families -- began with customer insights rather than assumptions on the part of the entrepreneur. Remember: start with humans!

Everyone is talking about food innovation -- even (maybe especially) big retailers.
You might think larger, legacy retailers like supermarket chains are disinterested in innovating. After all, the general layout and product selection at most large chains has remained unchanged for decades, even as the number of shoppers holds steady and ticks upward. But Craig Boyan and Scott Mitchell of Texas supermarket giant H-E-B told us otherwise. “Why do retailers care about innovating?” Boyan asked. “We can only beat Walmart and Amazon by innovating.” H-E-B is doing this in its stores by selecting better ingredients, making organics affordable for all, offering products you can’t get anywhere else, and ultimately capture the lucrative Texas market. In doing so, H-E-B partners with smaller brands to help them grow, manage their commoditization cycle, and push them to continually innovate. Remember: don’t shrug off supermarkets in your push to evolve the system!

It’s never too late to become an entrepreneur!
Keynote speaker Heather Mills opened Day 2 by telling about her own journey from a career in international modeling through a near-death experience to running one of the world’s oldest and largest vegan foods brands, VBites. In her touching and at times funny talk, Heather made an impassioned case for the role of plant-based eating in our food future (“instead of vegan hippie, it should be vegan hip”) and pulled back the curtain on some of VBites’ strategies and principles as she prepares to expand to the United States in the next few years. Remember: maybe your best idea or most successful business is ahead of you!

Everything we do is a work in progress.
Perhaps nowhere is this sentiment put into more meaningful action than at Boston’s Chew Labs, which is bringing a culinary and scientific lens to some of the most promising food products being developed today. Chef Adam Melonas, who previously co-founded UNREAL candy, shared his belief that food innovation is as much about process as it is products. At the same time, says Melonas, “comfort is the enemy of innovation” -- meaning we should always be striving to make our product or service even better. Remember: don’t get comfortable!

Personalized nutrition is the next big thing in food...but it’s still a diet.
The emerging frontier in food and nutrition, experts tell us, is personalized nutrition: products that often tap into our unique DNA and family histories to tell us what we should or shouldn’t eat. But these products, at their core, are still just diets, according to Thomas Hayes, research associate with Lux Research. Hayes said that to keep a personalized nutrition product from going the way of defunct fad diets like Nutrisystem, Atkins, and SlimFast, it must traffic in credible science; have value alignment with the consumer around health/wellness, convenience, price, experience, taste, and safety; and provide constant guidance to the consumer as he or she uses the product. The personalized nutrition industry offers many business opportunities, but only if the product or service ticks these three blocks. Remember: the trash heap of history is filled with fad diets -- don’t become one of them!

This is, of course, an incomplete list, but please do share your big takeaways in the comments below or in our social media feeds. If you made it to Food Edge, we hope it was a fruitful and inspiring time -- no matter how you’re working to influence our industry. And if you weren’t there, will you consider joining us next year?

Until then, never stop innovating. It’s the only thing that will fix our food system.

The State of Food Innovation: Life Sciences in Boston

STATE OF FOOD INNOVATION (2).png

One cannot discuss food innovation without discussing food science. Scientific inquiry and innovation undergirds nearly every facet of food, from how and what we grow to the nutritional balance of foods we consume, and to the environmental sustainability of what we eat.

Food science is couched within the life sciences: branches of science involving the study of living organisms like microorganisms, plants, animals, and humans. Boston has long been an outpost of discovery in the life sciences, buoyed by the hundreds of top-tier colleges and universities in the region. Many of the prescription drugs bringing healing and comfort to millions of Americans had their start here, and local companies that make them – like Novartis, Biogen, and Genzyme – are making billions in revenues as a result.

But besides Big Pharma, Boston is rapidly – and, perhaps, quietly – becoming a hub for food science innovation. This includes the development of new biotechnology solutions for farmers, cutting-edge nutritional research, gene and DNA research, and several investors funding this work.

Agriculture Biotechnology

As the world population balloons and extreme climate events become more frequent, farmers around the globe seek solutions to better safeguard their crops and increase community food security. The bioengineering of seeds and plants to resist insects and weeds, delay spoilage, or increase fruit size has been occurring for decades – and, some argue, centuries. One of the most exciting frontiers in this space is CRISPR – a fairly new technology that could transform the food we eat by allowing scientists to edit out undesirable traits in the foods we eat, like bruising or early spoilage. (of local note, MIT-based researcher Feng Zheng harnessed this technology for use in mammals)

The genetic modification of the foods we grow and eat has its skeptics, for sure, including those who argue that GM foods are unsafe to eat, harmful to the environment, or result in corporate consolidation in the food system. These critiques must be weighed and addressed. But even as the important conversation around food bioethics continues, we need to grapple with a few facts about biotechnology:

·      Our earliest ancestors were “engineering” crops and animals to increase the yield and quality of their food;

·      70 percent of processed foods today contain some form of genetically modified organisms; and

·      The more we study genetically engineered foods, the more scientists deem them as safe for human consumption. Tim Griffin, associate professor and director of the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, recently was among a group of scientists who spent two years studying 900 publications on genetically engineered foods for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This committee determined that genetically engineered foods pose no health risk to humans who consume them.

In labs throughout Greater Boston, scientists are developing solutions to increase the safety, abundance, and shelf life of the foods we produce and consume. Of particular note is Indigo, a Charlestown-based life sciences company treating agricultural seeds with combinations of naturally occurring fungi and bacteria commonly found in plants. Farmers growing crops on more than a half million acres across the country say these treated seeds are more tolerant of extreme weather like draught, and investors have responded in kind. In 2017, Indigo’s valuation grew to $1.4 billion, making it one of the largest ag-tech startups ever.

If Indigo is fortifying seeds, Cambridge Crops is fortifying mature fruits and vegetables. The Cambridge company, in partnership with MIT and Tufts, created a natural and edible biopolymer coating that, when applied to perishable food, postpones decay by reducing contact with gases and water vapor. Rabobank and MIT announced last year that the startup was among three recipients of the 2017 Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize for startups, for which the award was more than $50,000.

Ginkgo Bioworks, headquartered in Boston’s Seaport District, which uses yeasts to develop new flavors and fragrances, announced late last year its partnership with biotech giant Bayer on a startup that could replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Some crops, like beans and peanuts, are hosts for microbes that allow the plants to naturally fertilize themselves. Ginkgo and Bayer are bringing these microbes to crops that don’t naturally feature them – like corn, wheat, and rice, which account for more than half of all synthetic fertilizer use – resulting in even more crops that can fertilize themselves.

The local advances in food biotechnology even pertain to fish. Lowell-based KnipBio is actively developing a suite of powerful bioengineering tools to rapidly advance specific desirable traits that make an ideal single cell protein in fish diets, the idea being that we can lessen the environmental strain on wild fisheries.

Nutrition Science & Testing

Americans care a great deal – and increasingly so – about the nutritional value of the foods and drinks we put into our bodies. Buoyed by the health food boom, companies are taking notice, of course, offering products higher in the kinds of good ingredients consumers seek and lower in the ones we want to avoid. But so are scholars and scientists.

Frank Hu, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has studied the potential benefits of precision nutrition and, specifically, the use of gene sequencing to create a nutritional roadmap for individuals. For instance, using genetic data, personalized diets could be developed for individuals suffering from Type 1 diabetes, who are obese or overweight, and even those who wonder whether they might benefit from regular coffee consumption. (as an aside, the personalized nutrition space has become so promising, food giant Campbell’s has even gotten into the fray, spinning off the startup Habit)

Speaking of investments by big food companies, Nestlé Health Science made a $42.5 million equity investment in Boston-based startup Pronutria, which was initially formed within VentureLabs, the incubator of Flagship Ventures. Pronutria combines a Systems Biology understanding of the human metabolism, with its own library of the food proteome.

Could a computer chip simulate human organs, allowing scientists to test not-yet-developed drugs and foods more safely and conclusively? That’s the central idea behind Emulate Bio’s “Health Emulation System,” which it says opens a “high-fidelity window into the inner workings of the human body.” Early last year, Emulate’s “Organ on a Chip” was tapped to partner short-term with the Food and Drug Administration to see if the technology can stand up to what’s required to evaluate new products.

Consultants & Investors

Life sciences companies working on food and nutrition have plenty of local partners in the funding and consulting world. Consulting firm Lux Research, headquartered in Boston, helps developers and emerging companies understand just what consumers are seeking in terms of wellness and nutrition and keep them abreast of the next big technology and trend coming down the pike.

Local venture capital firm Anterra Capital focuses heavily on food biotechnology, investing in chemical companies enko chem and agrimetis, as well as CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering firm Caribou Biosciences, plant breeding software LemnaTec, and protein preservation technology bluwrap. And Flagship Venturing, out of Cambridge, is a main investor in Indigo, helping the biotech startup raise $203 million in Series D funding in late 2017. Boston-based DSM Venturing – an arm of the $12 billion science-based company – has focused its portfolio of investments on startups in solar and personal nutrition.

The Future of Food Life Sciences

So much of the innovation happening in food and agriculture has a foundation in laboratories, and as long as Greater Boston remains home to the world’s top scientists discovering new frontiers in top laboratories, the Boston metropolitan area will continue to make an outsized influence on the space.