Q1 2021: Food waste; the secret of fat; keep it local
Fri, 03/05/2021 – 01:00
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I wrote recently about the intense level of innovation we’re seeing in food and ag. To try to stay on top of things, I’ll run quarterly roundups that highlight startups with the potential to move the needle on sustainability. I’ll focus on early-stage companies but will drop in some larger outfits. Here’s my first-quarter selection:
Keep it local
Singapore-based Sophie’s Bionutrients uses fermentation to power a circular economy process that transforms industrial food waste from breweries, tofu manufacturers and other facilities into a protein flour that can be used as an ingredient in other food products.
The company jumped out at me because its tech ties in with Singapore’s bid to meet 30 percent of its inhabitants’ nutritional needs using local food by 2030 — a threefold increase on current local supply. Local food supply is increasingly seen as adding resilience to food systems, and it’ll be fascinating to see what the rest of the world can learn from Singapore’s progress. Because the company is reusing what was previously seen as waste, Sophie’s is also a great example of tech that can help food systems transition from extractive to circular.
Learn more: The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy recently released a detailed Action Agenda for Food.
“Fat is the secret ingredient that defines how meat looks, cooks and tastes,” said Max Jamilly, co-founder of Hoxton Farms, a startup aiming to grow animal fat in the lab.
Leading alt-protein offerings — the burgers from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, for instance — contain plant fats that lack the meaty taste of the real thing. Hoxton’s big idea is to grow animal fat from animal cells, which would avoid the need to rear and slaughter actual animals.
It’s early days for the company, which last month raised a $2.7 million seed round. But the startup is symbolic of the increasing specialization of the alt-protein sector. Incumbents such as Impossible developed much or all of their technology, but a new generation of startups is focusing on specific solutions such as bioreactor technologies, 3D printers and low-cost alternatives to the serums used to grow animal cells.
Learn more: The Good Food Institute has a comprehensive database of companies in this sector.
Sugar production drives a host of environmental problems, from biodiversity loss to water scarcity. That damage, together with the health impacts of eating too much sugar, has triggered a rush to find alternatives that are better for our bodies and our planet. One approach is to cut back on the amount we eat by making conventional sugars taste sweeter. At Supplant, engineers have another goal: figuring out how to extract sugar from fibrous material that otherwise would be treated as waste. The company recently announced a $20 million round and said it will launch its first product in collaboration with a big-name — although as yet unnamed — chef.
Learn more: The New Yorker recently ran a fascinating feature on “The race to redesign sugar.”
Sticking it to waste
There’s a hard-to-maintain balancing act at the heart of attempts to limit food waste. Consumers like to have plenty of food on hand at home and in stores. The obvious solution is to over-order, but that’s one reason why those locations account for half of all food waste in the United States.
There’s no silver bullet here, but extending the shelf life of fruits and vegetables could help. Apeel is a well-known market leader in this area: Its freshness-extending coating is used on avocados in Kroger stores and other outlets. StixFresh is a newer entrant with a rival solution: Its stickers contain compounds that delay the ripening of apples, pears, avocados, dragon fruits, kiwis, mangoes, oranges and other citrus fruits.
One interesting differentiation between StixFresh and other solutions is that the stickers can be easily applied at home. The company was one of 17 named last month to the inaugural cohort of the Circulars Accelerator, a circular economy incubator run by Accenture in partnership with the World Economic Forum and others.
Learn more: ReFED’s Insights Engine contains a wealth of information on the causes of and cures for food waste.
Pick of the bunch
As costs come down, next-gen greenhouses and vertical farms may be able to expand beyond their existing niche, which is mainly in leafy greens. And as these operations plug into an electricity grid that’s steadily decarbonizing, they may be able to deliver on the full sustainability potential of indoor ag.
To further drive down costs, a handful of startups are competing to replace human pickers with robots. One — Root AI — caught my eye because it’s on a hiring spree; the result, presumably, of having closed a $7 million round last year.
It will be interesting to see how this technology changes the economics of indoor ag and which commercial crops migrate into greenhouses and vertical farms as a result. We also need a better understanding of the impact of these advances on the groups, particularly immigrants, that rely on income from farm labor.
Learn more: The World Wildlife Fund is investigating how to build an indoor farming industry that meets the needs of local people and the environment.
That’s it for my Q1 roundup. If you work for or know of a startup that should get a mention in Q2, shoot me an email at email@example.com.