Innovating Energy & Food

The second annual Innovator Summit was held on May 16, 2017. More than 130 participated from across research disciplines and industry, including more than 60 organizations such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, Gates Foundation, Kansas State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, MIT, NASA, the US Department of Agriculture, and several campuses from the University of California system.

This year’s theme was Food and Energy, with attendees joining in panel discussions on:

  • Funding innovation in fields with low margins and long time horizons
  • Approaches to optimize system-level inefficiencies in food production and processing
  • Ways agricultural producers can balance rising energy costs with the need for safe, sustainable, and affordable products
  • Bottlenecks and costs associated with energy use in food processing
  • Nutritional and consumer preferences for fresh vs. packaged foods, as well as energy use in markets and restaurants for providing safe and nutritious products.

Financing Panel – Funding and facilitating innovation in fields with low margins and long-time horizons in the 21st century.

The morning began with the age-old topic of how to shift the financial perspective to meet innovations taking place across a changing food and agricultural landscape. Despite the Central Valley’s close proximity to Silicon Valley, the financial models are clearly not the same. So how does one increase investor interest while managing investor expectations? And what are the challenges at the state, federal, and global levels that further impede financial interest and success? Panelists emphasized the need to bring those in the finance world to the “innovation table” to engage in critical dialogue, and a willingness to seek other investors outside the industry, such as universities, corporate partners, and even government.

Food Systems Panel – Technologies and approaches to evaluate and optimize system-level inefficiencies in food production and processing.

Panelists looked at the inherent connections between food and the systems it touches, such as water, energy, natural resources, healthcare, the workforce, and the supply chain. When you look at it from a wider scope, food literally touches everything. The complexities on this scale can make it overwhelming – where do you start, how do you focus? Framing it in a market context, we can look to consumers, especially children, as primary innovators. Actively engaging consumers, pushing them to think in systems models, and educating them on food choices and waste impacts appears to be both challenging and rewarding.

Production Panel – How do agricultural producers balance rising energy costs with the need for safe, sustainable, and affordable products?

Increased energy efficiency in areas such as irrigation pumps helps address issues such as water struggles in California, but there is a need to highlight the availability of innovations. Widely varying national regulations, electrical infrastructure, and farmer-landowner disconnects contribute to further inefficiencies. No-till farming, GPS-enhanced tractor technology, microbials, hydroponics, and the use of GMO crops can all contribute to higher yields, but these approaches also come with both capital- and energy-related costs. A metric that determines both the direct and indirect energy expenditure of a system would be helpful to incentivize more efficient use. Software technology begins to address some gaps and helps data-mining, but the current economic climate for farmers impedes adoption.

Processing Panel – A review of current bottlenecks and costs associated with energy usage in food processing.

Whereas food waste is at the market and consumer level, food loss is primarily in processing and production with regards to high energy consumption. This is especially apparent in the dehydration of tree nuts and the removal of water from tomatoes, two major California industries. Energy efficiency differs from product to product, and process to process. Panelists stressed the need for more data to drive change, as most decisions remain economic. Industry has benefited from work at universities like UC Davis, but an innovator is yet to push the envelope and take on the risk for the entire industry. Collaboration also needs to increase, getting leaders together for continuing conversation and collecting data.

Consumption Panel – Nutritional and consumer preferences for fresh vs. packaged foods, as well as energy usage in markets and restaurants for providing safe and nutritious products.

You can innovate and create, but your idea will not be successful if not embraced and adopted by consumers. But does the consumer always drive innovation? Nutrition labeling is an initiative that shaped consumers’ wants. Consumer education and how it is delivered can be paramount. ‘Meet Your Farmer’ days for kids, demos in grocery stores, and local farmers’ markets are all engagement strategies for introducing new information or products to consumers. Yet educating consumers on food waste impacts and energy footprints remains a challenge due to the nuances of measurement.

Networking Activity – An IIFH and UC Davis D-Lab collaboration.

UC Davis professor and director of the D-Lab, Kurt Kornbluth, organized a networking activity to create a visual relationship map of participant interests, demonstrating overlaps and connectivity based on themes discussed during the meeting. Results were distributed to registrants so that connectivity could spur future collaboration.