In the bicoastal battle to be the global epicenter of food tech, New York and Silicon Valley are neck and neck. Some have argued that Gotham is “a multi-headed monster” that no other town can match in the co-located industries (fashion, media, finance) that amplify the creativity of food tech innovation. On the other hand, the Valley boasts massive venture capital ecosystem and tech prowess that has spawned molecular traceability start-ups like ClearLabs, sensor-based food safety innovations like 6Sensor and smart appliances like Nomiku.
But the East Coast–West Coast rivalry may just be an illusion. Last week, San Francisco–based Mixing Bowl brought its meetup of the food and IT communities to Manhattan and left the 120 mostly New Yorkers in attendance begging for more collaboration and buzzing with insights.
The day-long conference gathered food and agriculture thought leaders, operators, investors and IT innovators at the recently launched Civic Hall in the Flatiron District, where they munched on Cayuga Crunch granola, nibbled on Koppert Cress microgreens and discussed the technologies that are transforming our food culture.
Kicking off were two Silicon Valley interlopers. Sarah Small, food guru at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, shared a collection of “future artifacts” she had conceived based on current trends, including an Oculus Rift virtual reality experience for diners flying Virgin Atlantic airlines, ingestible sensors, a pair of chopsticks with embedded sensors to detect bad fry oil and a wearable indulgence detector that would warn the user when he was approaching dangerous limits of drug and alcohol consumption. In fact, some of this future is already here. Food futurist Tim West recently staged a chocolate tasting in the Bay Area where attendees wore VR headsets to see the Alpine pastures where the cows that produced the milk for the chocolate had grazed. Marriott has tested VR room service in which you can enjoy your morning coffee and fruit cup in an Italian coffee bar or beach side shack. In the face of all this rapid, sometimes unbelievable, change, “the need for farmers and food businesses to tell stories about their food is greater than ever before,” Smith declared.
“We’ve gone from a data-constrained food system to a data-flooded food system,” said Tom Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, and argued that the challenge, for farmers and grocers alike, is what to do with all this data. But Tomich contended that the ubiquity of information made sustainable farming inevitable—bad practices simply can’t hide anymore. At the same time, we have entered an era of “continuous volatility”—erratic weather associated with climate change, unprecedented swings in commodity prices associated with global financial tinkering—according to Rob Trice, co-founder of the Mixing Bowl and a longtime investor in the space, who adds that “our current monolithic food system is really bad at adapting to change or responding to trends.” The hope of everyone in the room is that this melding of tech and food will help us farm and eat better.
What followed were a series of panels that stretched across the food chain—from “RE-DO LOGISTICS” to “RE-DO GROWING IN THE FIELD” and “RE-DO NUTRITION.” With succinct pitches from expert panelists and plenty of pointed queries from the audience, the discussions were packed full of insights, offering many glimpses into the foodtech, agtech and healthtech worlds just on the cusp of being part of our every day. Here were some of the take-aways:
Don’t underestimate the hipster
— Upward Farms (@eatupwardfarms) March 25, 2016
This zinger was uttered by Johnny Bowman, COO and CFO of EdenWorks, a vertical hydroponics and aquaponics operation in Brooklyn, and the requisite hipster on his panel. The quote came up repeatedly throughout the day as evidence that the same hipsters who have gentrified certain neighborhoods across the country are also helping to mainstream the demand for small-batch yogurts, obscure microgreens and ecological footprint information on food labels. Bowman argued that while hipsters may be a relatively small part of the population, their willingness to pay more for food has rubbed off on the rest of society. When his panel was asked what tech tools they use on their farms, Bowman said that one of their best friends for pest I.D., data sharing and machinery repair was Instagram.
We are only in the first inning for so much
— Brian Halweil (@BrianHalweil) March 23, 2016
Perhaps the most notable panel, partly because it’s a topic that has so far gotten little attention in the foodtech circles I follow, covered the way in which the nutrition and health communities are harnessing data around what we eat. Dr. Lisa Mosconi, of the NYU Center for Brain Health wowed the crowd with juxtaposed brain scans of people on a Mediterranean diet versus an American diet (Spoiler: the American diet brain showed signs of cranial inflammation and brain shrinkage that could cause all sorts of mental disorders.) “People change their eating behavior when they see pictures of their brain,” she said. For reasons the panel couldn’t explain, seeing our diseased brains seems to be powerful in a way that seeing a cholesterol-clogged artery hasn’t been. This panel touched on so many buzzwords, including “microbiome” and “functional medicine,” but also agreed that so much of this work is “only in the first inning.” Nonetheless, the rapidly falling cost of personal genetic testing and brain scans will help this field mature quickly.
All links in the foodtech chain are not created equal
— Sarah Sha (@eat_the_future) March 23, 2016
In some Q&A toward the end of the day, Jennifer Goggin, a seasoned food tech entrepreneur, made a distinction between consumer food tech (smart countertop juicers, food delivery apps) and business food tech (logistics algorithms, farm robots), suggesting that the former doesn’t necessarily make us better eaters or enhance sustainability, while the latter has clear potential to reduce ecological impact and create opportunities for small, diverse farms. But these various links in the foodtech chain are also at wildly different stages in terms of investment, valuation and potential. In one panel on investment trends, speakers were asked where we are on the “Gartner hype scale,” a tool used to track technology adoption and valuation. Attendees agreed that food delivery was overvalued. Food media and restaurant tech, on the other hand, are undervalued with not enough start-ups helping define the future of food storytelling or to build the OS for foodservice.
Foodtech doesn’t offer massive returns, but it has other advantages
The food industry has been product focused for too long. Data + tech are the bigger play for big food/startup collaboration #mixingbowl
— Food+Tech Connect (@foodtechconnect) March 23, 2016
The last couple of years have witnessed an asymptotic rise in investment in tech throughout our food system, as evidence by recent reports from AgFunder and Rosenheim Associates. Still investors in attendance noted that foodtech investments are not likely to offer the “hockey stick” type spike in growth that you see with Uber, Twitter or any blessed, scalable tech “unicorns.” So why the rush to invest? Ben Fishman of Arlon Group noted that the 6 to 12 percent annual growth his firm often sees with its food investments may not match the growth of a software provider but offers great reliable long-term growth and perhaps the biggest TAM (“total available market,” in investor speak) of any product on the planet.
Beyond this steady growth, Rob Leclerc of AgFunder, which has a database of 600 investments and has looked at over 16,000 pitch decks, said foodtech businesses are less likely to simply go bust. He noted that of all the companies that they have tracked, a majority are still around—a track record unlikely for the brutal competition in the software space. Finally, Mixing Bowl’s Trice explained perhaps the most basic reason for the investment interest: passion. Having exited successful investments in tech, finance or other more abstract fields, foodtech investors are flocking to food because they truly love wine, fresh produce and spending time with their hands in the dirt (or virtually connected to the dirt). “Food is an investment,” he said, “that makes people happy on a personal level.”