Can Food Technology Start-Ups Really Feed The World?

The average apple in a U.S. supermarket is 11 months old when bought. So much for “fresh.” “By the time it gets to our grocery stores all of the antioxidants are gone,” said Caleb Harper, a food technology research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at a recent conference. “They are basically balls of sugar.”

‘Most of the world’s milk does not come from happy, fat, grass-fed Irish cows’

Picture: Cow with no body by Steven Zolneczko
released under Creative Commons 4.0

Ever since the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, showed diseases caused by obesity had surpassed disease caused by malnutrition globally, it has been clear that the world’s relationship with food is dysfunctional. This has spurred a move for alternative provision in developed nations, disrupting the global food industry, which was estimated to be about a $7.8 trillion market in 2015, according to Plunkett Research estimates, or about 10% of the world’s GDP.

All of which explains why investors see food tech as an express gravy train. Food tech start-ups raised $5.7 billion across 275 deals in 2015, up 152% on a funding basis and 102% on a deals basis year-over-year, according to New York analyst firm CB Insights: “Large deals …led Q4’15 to reach an all-time high for food tech funding at $2.15 billion, up 267% versus the same quarter a year prior.”

Food tech comprises everything from takeaway delivery services such as Germany’s Delivery Hero, through fresh food delivery start-ups such as Marley Spoon, to meal replacement services like the UK’s Huel and Finland’s Ambronite, to companies making synthetic meat, eggs and milk such as Beyond Meat, Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek and Muufri.

“In the last year there has been a revolution of investment in food tech start-ups,” says Oriol Ribera Prats, research and innovation director at the Barcelona-based food tech accelerator Reimagine Food, which is presenting at 4 Years From Now, .

Nutrition Isn’t Even Thought About

Reimagine Food is one of many now running programs aimed at helping start-ups either take on, or work with, the behemoths of the food industry.

According to Ribera, one of the big trends in the food industry is meal replacement. Julian Hearn, CEO of UK-based Huel (the word is a combination of “Human” and “Fuel”), says demand for its nutritionally-complete, powdered meal replacement is booming since it launched 18 months ago. “We are seeing 50% month-on-month growth,” he says.

Hearn says the vegan powder was originally thought of as a quick meal for busy people. “The high streets are full of shops selling convenience food. Most of those foods are focused around taste. Nutrition isn’t even thought about.”

But, says Hearn, increasingly they are seeing consumers with concerns about food integrity, use of pesticides and ethics. “There is a bigger problem to be solved here. Do we really need to kill all these animals?”

This drive for healthier, more ethical food is echoed by serial entrepreneur Spencer Hyman, co-founder of London-based Cocoa Runners, a specialist chocolate subscription e-tailer. “People want to know more about the food they are eating, making sure that they recognize the ingredients, and it is not full of stuff that you give to people when they are sick — like antibiotics.”

Demand For Ethical And Healthier Products

Hyman says that while the major global food brands have markets pretty tightly sewn up, they are vulnerable. “The danger to these guys is transparency. When you discover what you are eating or things that get into the food supply that’s the danger for them.”

In his own area, chocolate, he says that increasingly more affluent consumers are demanding better-quality products. “The way you make fine chocolate is completely different to the way you make mass-market stuff. Less is very definitely more when it comes to chocolate.”

This demand for more ethical and healthier products is one of the drivers behind companies in Bill Liao’s synthetic biology accelerator program run at University College, Cork, in Ireland. Advanced genomic technologies have the potential to transform food and reform the entire livestock and dairy industry.

“The pressure on food in every dimension is growing exponentially: whether it is safety, efficacy, production cost, environmental impact or ethical impact,” says Liao, a venture partner with SOSV and the man behind the synthetic biology accelerators in Cork and San Francisco. The answer, he says, is to use nature’s own tools, but tweaking them.

Most Cows Are Miserable Creatures

“Most of the world’s milk does not come from happy, fat, grass-fed Irish cows. It comes from miserable creatures that live their lives not far different to factory hens.”

One of IndieBio’s companies, Muufri (pronounced Moo-Free), tackles the problem by artificially producing real milk.

“Muufri have engineered yeast to produce milk proteins — that is the hard part of milk,” he says. “It brews them in a vat like you brew beer, using yeast. What you get out instead of alcohol is caseins, which are milk proteins. Mix that with the other constituents which are a few minerals, oils, fats and some galactose instead of lactose — most people cannot digest lactose — and you basically have milk.
“You have milk without lactose or cholesterol, that tastes like milk, it doesn’t need to be heat treated, and no cow suffered in its production.”

“More money is going to be made, and far more gains made, from synthetic biology than from the entire computer industry,” he predicts.

Six Start-Ups Shaping The Future Of Food

Consumer Physics
Tel Aviv, Israel
Food Analysis
The company’s SCiO is a tiny spectrometer that allows users to get instant relevant information about the chemical make-up of things around them, sent directly to their smartphones. With every scan, SCiO learns more, enabling the device to get smarter. Its Kickstarter project was successfully funded, raising £2.7 million from 10,000 backers (the goal was $200,000). The company has raised $10 million; backers include Khosla Ventures and entrepreneur Dov Moran, inventor of the USB memory stick.

Delivery Hero
Berlin, Germany
Food delivery
Rocket’s food delivery service is reputed to be preparing to go public, with reports that Citigroup and Goldman Sachs are advising the Berlin-based take-away delivery company. Delivery Hero has raised $1 billion in financing so far, with its latest fund-raising round in June valuing it at over $3.1 billion.

Hampton Creek
San Francisco, CA, U.S.
Artificial Food
Livestock are hugely inefficient ways of producing protein for human consumption. It takes about five kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of chicken, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. Hampton Creek is one of many new companies looking to produce artificial food products without using animals. The company, which has produced egg-free mayonnaise and cookie dough, has attracted $120 million in funding.

Aylesbury, UK
Claims to be a complete meal in a single serving, comprising all the essential minerals, proteins and nutrients. The powdered meal, which is mixed with water, is not designed to provide all sustenance, says founder Julian Hearn, but rather is used instead of, say, a grabbed sandwich at your desk. The company has been bootstrapped.

Natural Machines
Barcelona, Spain
3D Food Printing
Using 3D printing techniques in a specially-designed printer (the Foodini) Natural Machines hopes to persuade customers that printing food is a viable and cheap alternative to buying pre-processed meals. A 2014 Kickstarter campaign seeking to raise $100,000 failed to reach its target.

London, UK
Food Waste
Nearly a third of all food, with a value in excess of $80 billion, is wasted annually. Winnow’s smart meter has calculated that it has already saved its corporate customers $3 million per annum. The company recently raised a Series A round of $3.3 million that was led by Mustard Seed and D:Ax.




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