By Alex Levy
If I say “food tech startup,” what do you think? Sprig? Munchery? Doordash? These food delivery startups and many others are undoubtedly making a tremendous impact on the way people eat at home, delivering thousands of meals every day. Because of this impact and their focus on consumers, many people have developed a strong association between food technology and food delivery.
As someone who is deeply interested in the future of the >$4 Trillion global food industry, I know there are tremendous opportunities to use technology to make strides at all points along the supply chain. Farmers and fishermen can improve their yields and environmental footprint by using drones, sensors, and other technological innovations. New sources of food can now be discovered and synthesized to help deal with the long-term potential for food shortage and the impact of industrial agriculture on climate change. Interconnected restaurants promise a more pleasant and efficient experience for diners.
I went to South by Southwest with the InSITE program with the goal of getting beyond food delivery and hearing a bit more about some of the companies solving these problems. What I found was a tremendous variety of startups solving tackling major problems.
One of the largest issues being targeted currently is food transparency. Much of the food we eat is intentionally or unintentionally mislabeled; for example, Interpol seized 2,500 tons of adulterated or mislabeled food in an operation last year. With the current focus on the quantified self as well as a greater mainstream focus on wholesome eating, consumers are requesting transparency about the sources and contents of their food. For those with allergies, the demand for this type of transparency is life-or-death. The moment is ripe for a company like 6Sensor Labs, who I saw speak at the festival. Their product, a small device that can scan food (not a barcode, the food itself) and inform a diner about the presence of allergens and pathogens. This technology is currently expensive ($4 per scan), restricting its use to those with severe allergies. But as technology improves and costs go down, it’s not difficult to imagine the multitude of use cases for this type of radical transparency.
Another food problem being addressed is the environmental and health impact of meat. According to the United Nations University, “the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined.” A number of startups are targeting this from a variety of angles. Hampton Creek (whose founder spoke at SXSW) and Beyond Meat are using pea and other plant proteins to create viable meat replacements. Early-stage startups like Memphis Meats are going a step farther, using actual meat proteins to synthesize meatballs without killing a single cow or pig. Regardless of your stance on meat, these companies are undoubtedly exploring an interesting and important area of our food supply.
Of course, not every company present at SXSW was solving a world-changing problem. But it was deeply encouraging to see the wide variety of companies solving a number of different food problems.
So when you think food tech, think Munchery. But also think about the tremendous breadth of companies that are solving a variety of other real problems that will leave our food healthier, safer, and more abundant for years to come.