An intro to Food Tech
Mary is an MBA 2021 from NYC with a background in foodtech & consulting. She is currently launching TUPP, a circular economy startup tackling packaging waste in food takeaway.
When I joined Hellofresh in 2016, 'foodtech' was not really in the vernacular. Even when applying to the LBS Tech & Media Club's Exco in 2019, I never considered that I had any tech experience at all. I spent 3 years with the US Hellofresh team tackling interesting operational challenges like 'how much ice do you put in a cardboard box to make it possible to ship raw food across a country 40x the size of the UK?'. Of course, I knew we were an e-commerce company, but I never saw any code. I rarely interacted with our software engineers, who seemed largely focused on the UX and growth challenges of our business.
In the last 2 years, I've changed my perspective on what really makes up the 'tech' part of foodtech. Tech is not just software engineers and Silicon Valley. At its core, technology is anything innovative which improves the human condition. Meal kit delivery innovation was in its supply chain - we were buying food from farmers and getting it straight to your door with precisely the ingredients you needed. Other technologies of course supported all of this - software engineering made complex logistics efficient and affordable; refrigerated trucks made it possible to get frozen steaks from Nebraska to New Jersey. If you consider 'foodtech' in this way, it's actually the oldest category of tech in human civilisation.
Food, of course, is the thing which allows us to survive. You've surely experienced hunger and would understand even the earliest humans were constantly trying to solve two core challenges: (1) How do we produce more food? and (2) How do we keep the food we have edible for longer? The result is that the focus of foodtech thus far has been on growing more food and preserving food.
But, now we grow enough food each year to feed the world's population 1.5x over, so what's next?
We’ve overcorrected. We’re so good at producing and preserving food that we create too much of it and contribute to global problems in climate change. The next 20-30 years will be focused on creating solutions to tackle excess and waste throughout the food supply chain. Here are some interesting companies taking on this challenge:
Reducing consumer waste: Olio is a London based company which allows neighbours to share surplus food with each other. Even Zooey Deschanel is in on the trend - she and her cofounder sell portable hydroponic gardens with her company, Lettuce Grow, which makes it easier for millennials to grow their own food instead of buying it from supermarkets.
Making farming more efficient: Indoor farming is trying to reduce the environmental impact of traditional agriculture techniques. Companies like AeroFarms use 'aeroponic' technology to reduce the amount of water and pesticides required to grow greens. Lab grown meat companies, like Memphis Meats, are removing animals from the equation to reduce the amount of land and water (and emissions) required to raise them.
Improving retail grocery: If you were in London in the past few months, perhaps you've ordered from Oddbox, a company which sends you fruits and vegetables which otherwise would be tossed due to its size, shape, colour, or surplus quantities. UK based Mimica produces a temperature sensitive expiration label which allows you to see the actual expiration time of your food, rather than a simple sell-by date. Israeli based startup Wasteless uses dynamic pricing in supermarkets to help mark down items which are close to expiration.
Circular Economy: Circular economy businesses help to prevent waste from being created or use them to generate new life. Winnow uses computer vision AI and simple weight metrics to help commercial kitchens track what they're throwing away. Biobean recycles commercial coffee grounds to make biofuels (coffee logs!) and natural flavourants. I co-founded my own company this year, TUPP, which reduces packaging waste produced by takeaway meals.
If anything in this article intrigued you or if you want to help define the next age of food for all of us, then congratulations! You have the passion to help us solve these pressing issues. And, if there's one thing that's always been true and will continue to be true, it's that we need food.