Innovation Event Highlights Intersections Between Food and Technology
The inaugural Food Loves Tech innovation expo over the weekend in New York showcased about 40 companies, many of them startups, but many readers may still be wondering what tech has to do with food?
While there was a bit of pure tech experiences on offer, such as virtual reality from Koncept VR, and a sound installation by Audi, some of the vendors were actually there to highlight how non-tech they are.
It may be somewhat surprising that local, sustainably-produced food is associated so much with technology, but it is precisely because food like this is a rarity that there are so many opportunities for disruptive inventions and money-making opportunities.
Seattle-based Beecher’s handmade cheese is the perfect example of a non-tech product.
I talked to Joey Turshen, Beecher’s East Coast sales manager, who said the company was there to show New Yorkers “you can still make cheese the traditional way.”
Beecher’s makes cheese in a corner shop in Midtown Manhattan, behind large glass windows viewable to the public. Urban manufacturing is certainly a rarity, particularly in New York.
“I always thought of cheese making as a Willy Wonka factory, but it’s not. It is hands on,” said Turshen. He explained the process is about acquiring fresh milk, making sure it’s cultured at the right temperature, at the right pH levels, and for the right amount of time.
From this, one understands that artisanal cheese making is both very traditional, and very technical, and Food Loves Tech appeared to be exactly that. It featured startups using innovative ways to solve very basic problems, from sustainable food production, to more energy-efficient cooking methods, to new iterations of old recipes, or simply different ways of consuming or accessing food.
Sir Kensington’s new Fabanaise vegan mayo is another great example of non-tech with a twist. The pleasant tasting mayonnaise is made from chickpea cooking water, also known as aquafaba. The ingredient’s ability to whip up like eggs has only recently been discovered by chefs, and Sir Kensington’s is using what would otherwise be a waste product from a hummus manufacturer.
Another example is One Hop Kitchen, run by two brothers, and one of the brothers’ soon-to-be wife, who came down from Toronto, Canada for the weekend event.
The trio were offering blind taste test samples of bolognese sauce with pasta, one made with crickets, the second with mealworms, and the third with beef.
Insect food and insect rearing is associated with food tech these days because the business is so new, so there are opportunities to grab market share and scale up.
While insects are eaten regularly in many parts of the developing world, they have long been associated with disgust in the developed world. That is now changing.
Environmental concerns and new insect food options, are prompting many Americans, especially millennials, to want to consume them. One Hop Kitchen’s tasting booth was crowded with people giving it a try.
“Insects may surprise you. They are very delicious,” said co-founder Eli Cadesky, who has developed a patent pending process which turns the insects into textured protein.
I also talked to Dave Castle, director of operations for Vermont-based Seed Sheet.
His product is an instant garden that can be put on top of existing soil. The sheet itself is a weed barrier, and vestibules spaced out on the sheet contain seeds in starter soil, each vestibule covered by a see-through material that melts when you water it.
The seeds are placed in a way that take advantage of companion planting and intercropping, which are methods commonly used by organic farmers, so it makes a new gardener pretty high tech from the outset.
“We are training a new generation of gardeners,” said Castle, who added that the product comes with a digital community of how-to advice, such as soil preparation and cooking recipes.
New Jersey-based AeroFarms was also there, talking about its mission, advertised in company literature, to “combat our global food crisis with technology.”
AeroFarms is building what it says is the world’s largest indoor vertical “aeroponic” farm, which used 95 percent less water than farming in soil, according to literature. The plants roots get misted with nutrient-rich water, and the company gets yields of up to 30 harvests per year to sell to urban-dwellers.
The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was also there talking about its solutions for a little-known problem facing 3 billion women and their families in developing countries.
Household air pollution from long hours spent cooking on open fires, with charcoal and kerosene, pose an enormous health risk that is killing more women and children than HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis put together, said Kavanaugh Livingston, who works for the alliance.
The alliance supports startups like Brooklyn-based BioLite, which has developed a wood-burning stove that cuts smoke emissions by 90 percent and reduces wood consumption by 50 percent.
An internal thermoelectric generator powers the fan that supplies the efficient heat, and it will also charge a cellphone and power a bright LED light for the night. This company has engineered solutions for three modern necessities in one shot.
Different methods of delivering food, and food accessibility, was another notable theme.
Umi offers an innovation on home cooking. This company’s concept is for the person who doesn’t like to cook, or doesn’t have the time. Why not order home-cooked food from someone who puts love into the food? Order through the app of course!
Hallie Meyer, one of Umi’s three co-founders, said the Brooklyn-based service just launched, and it’s already received 250 applications from willing cooks that Umi is now working hard to onboard through its internal food safety program.
JuiceBot sells freshly squeezed juice at an affordable price point. Company president LJ Stead says they are going for corporate cafes, airports, and apartment buildings.
Farmer’s Fridge dispenses locally-sourced food in jars, such as salads, chocolate trail mix, and chia seed pudding. Again, they are aiming for offices, hospitals, universities, and shopping centers. So far they have 40 locations in Chicago, and New York is next on the list for expansion.
And finally, I spoke with Lavít managing partner Gian Matteo Lo Faro, who said the product has been in development for six years, and is now ready for market.
Lavít is a single-serve beverage dispenser with a first-of-its-kind recyclable aluminum drink pod. Users can choose from purified water or sparkling water, and flavors like ice tea, lemonade, and energy drinks, either unsweetened, or sweetened with stevia or Splenda.
Large technology and creative companies are already buying the system, according to Lo Faro, including Pinterest, Marvel Worldwide Inc., and LinkedIn.
The idea came to Lo Faro during a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps when the absurdity of bottled water occurred to him. “You shouldn’t be lugging water from places like Italy when your house has water,” he said.
Lo Faro thought about all the trucking, transportation, and refrigeration expenses associated with bottled beverages, and decided that his fully recyclable product would put an end to plastic bottles.
I can’t write about all the companies that were there, but I am sure this will not be the last we see of Food Loves Tech, nor of the companies involved, nor of the sorts of business opportunities they represent.
Food Loves Tech was created by Edible Manhattan and VaynerLive, in partnership with Audi, and under the creative direction of Food Futurist Dr. Irwin Adam Eydelnant.