Google, Big Data and robots: Tech’s new food security moonshot
A multibillion-dollar market, rapidly improving technological capabilities, and huge social and environmental implications: Talk about a dream opening for Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs.
Traditionally low-tech industries from finance to government to retail already are undergoing massive change thanks to the software-eating-the-world dynamics pervading global business. Yet, one new initiative aims to catalyze advancements in a truly universal field: food.
Innovation Endeavors, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm co-founded by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, has teamed with supply chain solutions company Flextronics to convene a "collective" of corporations angling to capitalize on the many obstacles — and opportunities — in the agricultural sector.
The new collective, Farm2050, already has announced partners including Google, DuPont, AGCO, Sensitech and 3D Robotics. Innovation Endeavors Founding Managing Partner Dror Berman told GreenBiz that he hopes to add to its roster incumbent leaders in food and food manufacturing.
While there are already plenty of examples of corporate venture capital funds, startup incubators trying to catalyze technological advancement in fields ripe for new entrants, agriculture offers heightened social and economic drivers for innovation thanks to the combination of a rapidly growing global population and increasing food insecurity.
The United Nations projects that global food production levels will need to rise 70 percent by 2050 to help feed an additional 3.2 billion people. Closely related social, environmental and economic factors — such as urbanization and increasingly dire water shortages in many corners of the globe — further complicate the future for predominant models of industrialized agriculture.
Farm2050 has not publicly stated a prospective amount of funding to be made available to food startups, but Berman said the goal is to go above and beyond traditional accelerator models focused on investing, advising and marketing young companies. Instead, he hopes to encourage more fluid partnerships with corporations, which could include everything from capital or logistics assistance to pilot projects that could help scale startups in the nuanced and high-overhead world of agriculture.
"There are different ways for partners to interact with startups to create sort of a win-win situation,” Berman told GreenBiz. "What we wanted to do was test a new model for innovation, where we bring partners in and say, ‘We want you to work with startups and provide them resources that will allow them to grow.'”
Berman added that the collective is currently reviewing applications for both corporate partners and startups in the broadly defined agricultural industry. While startups in the field range from urban gardening pioneers to synthetic meat producers, he is particularly intrigued by two decidedly techie niches: robotics and data.
One growing market is in open-data products designed to better measure and encourage efficiency in farming operations. Robotics are being deployed for everything from self-driving tractors to automated weeding to more targeted harvesting. At the same time, however, robots raise big questions about whether the loss of agricultural jobs to automation really can be offset by new jobs in other facets of farming operations (a debate also pervading manual labor-intensive fields such as transportation and sanitation).
Rethinking corporate innovation
Berman's Innovation Endeavors already is invested in Blue River Technology, one of the agricultural industry's most visible startups. The company professes a goal of measuring the nutritional needs of individual plants to lower the amount of chemicals used in cultivation.
Although Blue River and other startups hold promise for increasing farming efficiency and reducing ancillary ill-effects such as toxic runoff, the challenge now is building critical mass to make a dent in daunting food security and environmental issues.
“One of the biggest challenges now is a lack of capital for these companies, and maybe a lack of attention from the venture industry," Berman said. "There should also be more talent working on this. It’s a little bit underserved because it requires an interdisciplinary team."
Farm2050, like other groups aiming to bridge the gap between tech startups and entrenched industry, positions itself as an intermediary.
“For a big company, it’s a very hard thing to find and connect with all the startups," Berman said. "We can be the facilitator and help them identify the companies they need. In return, they can offer them what they need. It’s a little bit experimental because we want to understand the demand and then build the supply.”
One interesting variable will be whether big names in food — Monsanto, Unilever and other major international brands — will choose to get involved in initiatives such as Farm2050 or focus on in-house innovation.
Although Silicon Valley's idealized collaboration and disruption have helped move the needle in other markets, those concepts are often in conflict with large companies' predominant goal of protecting market share and the bottom line.
While the agriculture industry is beginning to attract more interest from stakeholders with a variety of economic and social interests, Berman stresses that the field won't be revolutionized overnight.
“It’s more complicated than creating the next Angry Birds," Berman said, name-checking the popular mobile app. "It’s a different process.”