2018 Innovator Summit: Transformation of the Food System
The 3rd annual Innovator Summit was co-hosted by IIFH, together with the Energy Institute at Colorado State University (CSU), the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), and The Mixing Bowl on April 23, 2018. More than 200 guests from industry, research, technology, finance, government and non-profit sectors came together to address common challenges and uncommon solutions across food, ag and health.
The event focused on transformation of the food system along three distinct tracks: Biotechnology, Digital, and Energy. A range of keynotes, breakout sessions, and innovator showcases provided opportunity to develop joint interests and collaborative efforts. Read on to learn more.
KEYNOTE SPEAKER Andy Hargadon: Leading Innovation with a Network Mindset
How can we more effectively work to lead innovation? How do we move innovation from idea to reality?
Consider that the biggest breakthroughs will come not from new ideas, but from new networks. The network becomes the innovation. For example, penicillin as an antibiotic was a ripe idea, but it was not until a new configuration of complementary ideas, individuals, organizations, technologies, polices, and resources enabled penicillin to reach patients that it truly became the innovation that we know it to be today. The right people with the necessary expertise came together, and the right technologies and policies moved it forward. The same is true for modern examples such as Apple’s iPod, where a network of individual parts was purchased rather than invented. In both cases, the innovators recognized that they had opportunity to build a better network than had existed previously, and deliver a product through a seamless user interface.
Innovating is nexus work – building new networks where they did not exist before, perhaps centered on an existing idea, but being aware of enabling factors that can be networked to make that idea successful. It is about finding other nexus workers who will help support the growth of the network, and of the idea. With this new lens, consider what faculty, industry, students and researchers are doing, and how to better connect them for success.
KEYNOTE SPEAKER Jon Foley: PlanetVision – Solutions for a Better Future
We need the additional lenses of history and culture, together with a better focus on technology, science and entrepreneurship, to solve the challenges facing us in the 21st century. Between explosive population growth and increasing pressure on resource use, including the atmosphere, the planet is being degraded. We are also burdening future generations with the incredible challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, and the decline of natural resources that we depend upon such as soil, water, fisheries and landscapes. Agriculture is by far the biggest displacer of land on Earth, increasing pressure on land and water use; 35-40% of all land is used for food, 70% of water is taken out of the watershed, of which 90% is not put back in.
Human activities are pushing the planet to its limits mostly from resource use for food, water and energy. At the same time, the human condition has substantially improved over the last 50 years – we now live longer, healthier lives in a safer, more connected world. This is both a planetary crisis and a moment of opportunity. We can seize this opportunity to build the future we want, but we need a new approach. How do we live better without compromising the future, creating a future where people and nature thrive together without compromising the lives of people today or the people of tomorrow? Leaders must guide us to solutions that build a better future.
Today, political leaders and media pundits instill fear and divide America for their own gain. Trust in media and government are at all-time lows. We are paralyzed by fear, anxiety and division. This cultural impasse is by far the biggest barrier to a better world. Improvements to science, technology and policy have limited effect in a polarized world. Culture ends up trumping these other advances.
A better future must be envisioned together. New messengers are needed, such as trusted cultural institutions (e.g., museums, libraries and parks), along with new messages that use hope instead of fear to talk about solutions instead of problems, and about collaboration instead of conflict.
A desirable future will only come from rethinking food, water and energy. A change in the cultural narrative will be key to shifting the conversation, whether we come from technology, policy, science or other disciplines. People must be able to culturally talk to one another with respect in order to make necessary progress, no matter what science, markets and tools tell us is possible. These goals may not directly save the planet, but will help inspire people at scale and remind us that we can make changes together. By working with long-term projects and long-term generational changes, we can prepare for a successful future.
PLENARY FoodShot Panel
FoodShot Global, Generation Investment, UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health, Acre Ventures, Rockefeller Foundation
How do we best pursue uncommon collaborations and outcomes?
How do we produce healthy foods to meet the demands of a growing global population, while considering planetary margins?
How do we transform the food system into one that is more healthy, sustainable and equitable?
This will have to be a global collaborative effort. Even bringing together experts from foundations, institutes, finance or investment, no single company or funder will succeed in making the necessary long-term meaningful change. It will take a network of peers that share knowledge, resources, best practices and insightful learning along the way. An entrepreneurial team alone is not enough, it also involves changes to cultural communication, public policy, and public health interactions. We must mobilize our efforts in an orchestrated, proactive way to shift the paradigm and make way for new innovations to mature more efficiently than they have in the past.
This socioeconomic construct is the driving force behind FoodShot Global, a collaborative platform of innovators, investors, industry leaders, and advocates who are working together to solve our biggest food system challenges. By connecting knowledge, networks and funding across the private and public sectors, FoodShot creates scalable, impactful and inspired solutions – MoonShots For Better Food. It represents a unique hybrid model that aligns equity, debt and prize dollars to empower visionary entrepreneurs and change agents.
FoodShot is focusing on protein security, feeding the microbiome, carbon farming, regenerative agriculture, 100% food transparency, zero food waste, and establishing food secure cities. FoodShot is a critical resource for young companies who are trying to solve big technological challenges. The effort, time, burn rates and funding that goes into supporting these efforts is immense. Thus, it is necessary to create a space where companies can engage R&D and use funding, science and technology to find viable solutions. Often, success requires getting other people involved, creating a network where there is access, capital and expertise all along the way.
Post-Harvest Processing and Distribution Panel
Intrexon, BASF, UC Davis, Fairlife
Methodological innovations in food processing aim to upgrade and valorize waste streams, replace costly ingredients, improve overall product and process quality, and create new and healthier products. Companies such as Fairlife are developing technology for more efficient milk processing. Milk is being cold filtered to increase nutrition, remove lactose, lower sugar and extend shelf life. At BASF, industrial enzymes enable more flexible, selective and effective operating parameters. Their innovative enzyme products optimize biochemical processes for environmentally safe food processing.
Ag biotechnology company Okanagan Specialty Fruits is targeting specific traits in tree fruits to maximize product freshness, such as the non-browning trait in the Artic Golden Apple. They are also performing research to explore how consumers truly feel about GM foods. Thus far, they have uncovered that most consumers are not against GM foods, but consumer knowledge is low or varied. When the benefits are clear and personal, acceptance levels improve. Outreach through education and open communication to key channels and influencers is essential to ensure that the benefits and safety of GM foods are reinforced and viewed transparently.
Supply Chain Talks – Bacteria for Health, Alternative Protein, and Personalized Production
UC Davis, Evolve Biosystems, Good Food Institute, Ginkgo Biowork
Bacteria are very important to our overall health, our nutrition and our protection. From the perspective of the ag and food industry, the 21st century will be the century of bacteria. For example, looking at the complex structure of oligosaccharides in human milk, they are indigestible by babies but digestible by enzymes encoded in Bifidobacterium infantis. This bacteria is acquired through inoculation during live birth, and protects and helps feed the infant. With the rise of cesarean sections, less and less babies are being exposed to this essential step in infant nutrition. The company Evolve Biosystems is addressing this concern by building the bacteria into a marketable product that improves babies’ ability to digest oligosaccharides from maternal milk.
More broadly, what is the future of protein? Food and meat industries acknowledge that a transition is taking place. The growing demand for protein is compelling food innovators to seek alternative protein production solutions. Sustainable food systems require radically different thinking around protein production, rather than just incremental efficiency gains. How can we rethink what we consider to be meat – divorcing the typical animal source from the method of production? This means deconstructing meat and animal products, and leveraging biology and biochemistry to reconstruct them at cellular and molecular levels. Alternative protein production platforms, such as those being developed by the Good Food Institute, can be separated into four main categories based on inputs and methods: animal cell culture (clean meat), non-animal cell culture, recombinant proteins, and plant-based proteins. Further, the raw inputs for these cell-based platforms can be sourced from virtually any biological process.
Ginkgo Bioworks has developed a technology platform that allows rapid prototyping of microbes and small organisms to enable production of compounds that have industrial potential (i.e., chemicals and nutritional ingredients). Ginkgo’s mission is to make biology easier to engineer by pairing hardware with codebase know-how to work across multiple different experiments, projects and platforms. This process allows for production to be modified (e.g., delivering an organism to a client who then ferments it to scale and extracts the product of interest). The product profile can then be tuned to their needs, rather than depend on the variances of the agricultural supply chain.
Food Production Panel — Commercializing New Technologies for Agriculture
Intrinsyx, Cornell Univeristy, UC Davis, Estes Consulting
Innovative genetic technology has the power to revolutionize ag plant breeding, by developing new types of specific crop traits such as flavor, taste and nutritional content. These hold the greatest interest for the consumer, and have begun to inform food production methodologies. However, a new focus is emerging for necessary traits to deal with an ever-changing climate, as well as new insect and disease pressures on crops. Some experts suggest that farmers and food crop engineers need a fuller toolbox to effectively combat these challenges and continue transformative solutions in ag. The grower toolbox needs to combine genetic, chemical and biologically based strategies, including breeding genetic resistance into crops (e.g., resistant root stocks), development of synthetic or natural products for biocontrol of pests, and identification of organisms that occupy niches that exclude pathogens.
Some of the largest companies in agriculture are now focused on beneficial microbes. A bacteria present in both willow and poplar trees was isolated due to its ability to fix nitrogen and mobilize insoluble phosphorus from rock, which can help gain access to more natural resources. Other isolated bacteria can generate anti-fungal compounds for regulating and preventing pathogen infestations, and even help with drought tolerance. These symbiotic bacteria work very well with plants in their natural environments, and can be applied individually or as a consortia (e.g., for increasing crop yields). There is a bright future for these biotechnologies, capturing nitrogen from the air, fixing it into crop plants, mobilizing necessary phosphorous, preventing pathogens, and addressing difficult environmental conditions.
Although the tools exist to improve production, a big challenge of this effort is the inability to use novel genetic technologies in the commercial food industry as a result of patent wars associated with CRISPR-CAS9. The other challenges are operational and regulatory in nature. That is, actually getting the edited gene into a growing plant. While CRIPSR-based gene editing tools are more precise and affordable compared to precursors, consumers quarrel about the potential benefits of the technology. We must work with the public to improve our understanding of this new frontier, avoiding the mistakes that previously plagued GMO communication.
The Alliance for Science is a global communications initiative promoting access to agricultural innovations through a vast network of plant biologists, international agriculturists, and science communicators. Public sector institutions and private-public partnerships are joining together to advance food-related biotechnology conversations for driving innovative solutions that address food and health challenges. The use of biotechnology to serve agriculture (e.g., nutritionally fortified foods, drought tolerant crops, or reduced pesticide and chemical use) has already facilitated the deployment of products and processes that enable safe, sustainable and secure nutrition.
Nutrition Talk – Soybean Oil, Good or Bad for the Brain?
The US intake of soybean oil has increased over the past few decades. While soy has many nutritional benefits, researchers are concerned about the potential effects of some soy derivatives; for example, there has been a three-fold increase in the consumption of a soy-derived ‘essential fatty acid’ called linolenic acid (LA). Yet LA is actually a precursor to many pro-inflammatory compounds. The human brain does not naturally have abundant amounts of LA, but is now receiving LA at similar rates to other fatty acids. The brain then tries to rid excess LA, which is rapidly converted into oxidized metabolites that are capable of altering neural or synaptic transmission. New research suggests that lowering dietary LA could reduce the brain’s response to an insult, and have anti-inflammatory effects.
Nutrition Talks – Microbiome, Genetic Analysis, and Artificial Intelligence to Mitigate Human Disease
UC Davis, Nuritas, Second Genome
There is a high demand for innovative solutions that can address the global disease crisis. The microbiome plays a critical role in human health, and an expanding area of interest involves harnessing the power of microbes to improve disease prognosis. If disease is controlled at the molecular level, can the pathways, receptors and modulating mechanisms be targeted as a way to block the bacterial effect? Second Genome is using high-throughput screening and rapid automation to industrialize and accelerate such R&D. Second Genome’s proprietary Microbiome Discovery Platform enables correlation between bacterial sequence data and the metadata of multiple studies to uniquely address human disease biology. By integrating computational science and machine learning, the platform goes beyond pharmaceutical therapeutics and will transform human health across multiple industries. The company Nuritas is also looking at peptides and deep learning algorithms to meet this need. By combining genomics and artificial intelligence to target, predict and unlock novel bioactive peptides from everyday food sources, they seek to deliver highly specific, efficient and life-changing health solutions. The Nuritas platform seeks out molecules that can actually bind specific receptors to target disease. Their AI program mines genetic data and identifies molecules and subsets that have the highest likelihood of modulating a disease. The global challenge of delivering appropriate nutrition and addressing human health is complex, requiring that we integrate efforts from fields like nutrition, genetics and computer science.
Farm Management Challenges and Solutions
Bowles Farming, Maricopa Orchards, Naturipe, Huntington Farms
Specific crops comprise unique challenges. Agricultural practices are evolving to address these challenges by incorporating breeding that better exposes fruit for harvest, and mechanical solutions to support harvest labor. The future of ag will increasingly move production out of fields and into controlled environments or table top production, to provide opportunities for improved labor conditions and retention.
The session highlighted how innovations affect various parts of the food industry and supply chain. For example, the packaging and distribution advances of the 1980s (e.g., refrigerated trucking and clamshell packaging), and relocation of geographical production (e.g. Southern California productivity has moved to Mexico) resulted in much improvement. Yet, in the last decades innovation has progressed for some commodities (e.g. corn), but not for others (e.g. strawberries). Still lots of room remains for further innovation, including reduced pest control inputs, or genetic improvements.
Incremental improvements to existing operations are recommended for increasing productivity today, not just introducing robotic assistance tomorrow. Technologists need to overcome a history that overpromised and underdelivered. This could be aided by better engaging commodity-specific advice during innovation design, and also demonstrating how associated data collection can help with management of an increasingly varied environment (e.g., moisture levels and nitrogen toxicity). Future ag innovations should acknowledge that technological insights offer key advances, but can become a burdensome management activity. In particular, innovations need to address the high-cost elements of farming as a business: labor, fertilizers/chemicals, and water. Policy implications also affect operational costs, such as the single ground water management act (SGMA), requiring a coordinated agency approach.
Creating Value for Agriculture through Technology
Western Growers Association, WaterBit, The Mixing Bowl, Vinsight, PowWow
Consider innovation as constant process improvement, varying with the political and sociocultural focus of the time. Technology solution providers need to continue expanding their understanding of what a user will gain, and better research high-need problems. How can the tech sector best support the ag community’s innovation needs? How can data-driven decision-making and multiple platform dashboard management tools facilitate complex operations? Moreover, how can these technologies enable the effective implementation of practical solutions?
Current technology adoption involves a hype cycle, followed by disillusionment, and then product abandonment. Today’s farmers need to be able to follow the targeted problem and benefits through the food chain. Data capture can influence production decisions, and result in yield gains with cost savings. Although technologists are enthusiastic about identifying problems and offering solutions, a focus on improving the farmer’s bottom line must be brought to the forefront of agtech development. It takes time to fully understand a problem and to appreciate the benefits to be gained. Building integrated process control platforms to assess multi-year costs and savings (e.g., by the third year of implementation) can provide significant benefits. However, committing to and responding to individual needs, including support of community conversation across the food system, is still essential. We all need to eat, and so have a vested interest in the ag industry being successful.
Digital Ag Research & Technology
UC ANR, UC Davis, Tule Technologies
Research programs based on decision support tools create modeling frameworks around real-world scenarios. For example, combining multiple data feeds can offer the most effective recommendations for on-farm management at the field or site-specific level. Efficiencies can also be introduced through robotic devices that maximize harvesting rates for laborers.
There is a balance between historic breeding solutions and current engineering solutions (and requisite training); in orchards, high-volume yields are difficult to mechanically harvest, or require manicuring of trees to accommodate technological applications. Few engineering solutions fully address the challenge. Further, the overabundance of on-farm big data requires algorithmic fine-tuning. The analysis software must ensure quality data to effectively aid management decision-making. Universities have a role in helping to identify those skills required for students to move into this new entrepreneurial landscape. Good investor decisions should also be guided by the science that universities can provide, as well as farmer consultation early in technology development. There is a unique pairing opportunity between companies seeking to address an ag problem, and academics working on solutions. However, this typically needs to be undertaken across the food system, and involves complex interdisciplinary methods and issues, as well as necessary workforce training.
Growing and Funding Innovation in Ag
Better Foods Ventures, SVG Partners, Acre Ventures, Wells Fargo
Investors need to focus on innovations that ‘makes sense’. That is, those that reduce industry and market risk. But with so many innovators in ag, have we reached a saturation point? The irony of technological disruption is that it is often the target of activism, which ultimately acts to reduce innovation to mere product iteration. In taking technology to the marketplace, significant business support is required, assuming the technology’s value proposition looks promising. Investors could benefit from engaging with universities to provide data in support of market positions, such as authenticating claims for the nutritional benefits of a new product. However, academia needs to be buffered from direct market pressures in order to advance truly disruptive technologies.
University time horizons do not match well with those of investors, who require IP to be fast-tracked out of the academic innovation system. Here, accelerators can offer more efficient outcomes. Ag investors are typically drawn to the triple bottom line of financial, social and strategic solutions, rather than the characteristically shorter investment timelines. More recently, unique investment partnerships have emerged from greater interest in pre-revenue conversations. Typically, only fundamental changes have drawn investor interest, which can be applied across the system (e.g., genetic or breeding improvements). However, the new era of agtech embraces disruption over incrementalism.
Investors increasingly seek to review upcoming innovation, in order to influence bigger investment decisions and make changes at scale. But farmers must always come first, since customers often guard against disruption, in an effort to mitigate their own risk. In this way, incremental change has previously proven effective at offering on-farm gains, but change agents need to work together to cumulatively develop the future of the industry. Smaller market players are more difficult to target with venture enterprises. Small-market channels need to be validated in order to guard against cash-flow challenges on the farm. The requirement for affordability often makes small-scale farmer needs subsequent to large-scale, venture-backed innovation.
Food and Energy – Framing the Question
Colorado State University
Food and energy have inextricably been linked throughout the ages, and today. Yet the complexity of the modern energy system has clouded connections. Prior to the agricultural revolution, labor was the primary source of energy to drive societal functioning, and so food was the primary source of fuel. Today, the entire ag and food value chain is driven by energy derived from outside the sector; the internal combustion engine is but one example among many. However, is this sustainable? Using data to assess food system operations, can improvements offer value to existing processes and traditional technologies? The more recent notion of ‘foodscapes’ frames the sociocultural role of food in the context of operational networks, and considers changes within the system as having consequence due to networked relationships. It applies systems thinking to develop a relational understanding of food. In this way, we may be able to re-center food, or more accurately ‘foodscapes,’ into our culture and social networks.
Funding Innovations – Investor View
Resource consumption over the last century has increased exponentially with population growth. Frontline innovators within innovation ecosystems can help incrementally revolutionize resource use inefficiencies. In order to foster innovation, those with the vision and expertise must be supported to lead the way; funding is absolutely necessary to the endeavor. A combination of private and federal funding interests are required to sustain systemic change. Those with the capacity can invest in high risk projects in order to de-risk basic research in the sector. Innovations must be both technically and commercially viable. This includes larger scale breeding solutions, or smaller scale tool development that enables incremental innovations to get to market. In addition to funding, early-stage enterprises need to connect the very best people for solving an issue, to ensure legitimacy as the group works to promote innovation. The fact that a venture’s success is intimately linked to the strength of its network is especially pertinent in developing agriculture and food technologies.
Leading the Way – Example Companies
Sierry Energy, Xiant, OnePointOne
In the face of current labor shortages and heightened urbanization, automated and indoor agricultural systems provide an opportunity to significantly reduce labor costs, speed growing time, and decrease transportation expenses. While not currently cost-competitive with traditional farms, projected decreases in energy costs and increased prevalence of renewable energy sources indicate that this will be the farm of the near-future. LEDs offer the potential to optimize food production in both plants and animals. Plant growth can be maximized while water and energy consumption is simultaneously reduced, and animal productivity can be increased while limiting animals’ agitation, aggression and nervousness.
The Future of Energy and the Food System – Bringing it all Together
The future of innovation demands that we consider society’s intentions for the food system: what do consumers need or want? Academia can play a role in validating potential new technologies, and providing necessary core competencies in technological development. Small scale accomplishments should not be undervalued, as they can enable step-wise progress toward increased industry efficiency. At each stage, the market size for the innovation should be realistically assessed, and vulnerability to disequilibrium events should be noted. Paths to market can build incrementally on existing technological advances, or break new ground. However, both approaches must accommodate the scale required to realize systemic change across the food and ag sector.
List of Attendees
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|Acre Venture Partners
Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce
Archer Daniels Midland
Ava Food Labs
BASF Venture Capital America
Better Food Ventures
Breakthrough Energy Ventures
California Academy of Sciences
California Department of Parks & Recreation
California Strawberry Commission
City of Sacramento
Colorado State University
Davis Funding Club
Entebbe Animal Care Center
Food Venture Lab
Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research
Future Food Institute
Intrexon (Okanagan Specialty Fruits)
Maricopa Orchards (Assemi Group)
Mixing Bowl Hub
Naturipe Berry Growers
Pacific Heights Advisors
|Social Strategy Associates
The Food Business School of The Culinary Institute of America
The Food Front
The Good Food Institute
The Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
The Morning Star Company
The Mushroom Farm
The Production Board
The Rockefeller Foundation
The VINE Initiative
Thomas Jefferson Foundation (Monticello)
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources
UC San Diego
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
University of California Office of the President
Virginia Cooperative Extension
Walton Family Foundation
Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology