Tangential Technology – The Future of Food is Ripe

The bees in my head are very busy this morning….and here is my latest foodie data rumbling:  How will the hottest technology trends in the high tech market today impact the ongoing transformation in Foodtech?

(1) Big Data and Analytics – being front and center for IBM’s transformative ventures into Cognitive Commerce, I see the power, profit and scale that these solutions can bring to both enterprise and small to medium businesses.   The larger food players have already realized that leveraging the power of consumer and supply chain data properly can mean customer loyalty, retained market share and ongoing brand survival.

(2) Blockchain and Digital Currencies – In the early days, bitcoin and cryptocurrency may have been viewed by many as the rebellious flailings of anti-establishment revolutionists, challenging the status quo of a staid and traditionally conservative Financial Services sector.  Today, the growth of blockchain paradigms as models for how to transform Commerce applications are no longer relegated to the Financial Services sector.  This shift means data remains king to consumer retention and trend relevance. Amazon Coins, as one example, and the pervasive issues around addressing digital currency in e-commerce, causes me wonder how food technologists will leverage this development explosion to increase customer adoption and e-commerce transformation.

(3) Virtual and Augmented Reality – Marketers of all types look at the promise of VR and AR like a starving man looks at a warm meal.  The acceleration of consumer access to first generation VR means we all may have cool new ways to use our iphones and devices as soon as this upcoming holiday season.  Once VR (and more importantly AR) come to the masses in an affordable and commercially available way, e-commerce and just in time consumption business models will explode.  How are food technologists planning to capitalize on this?

What say you, FoodieData thinkers?  What are your bees buzzing about?

Does the Future of Food Live in Better B2B Investment?

Although today’s food technology start up market remains hot, there have been murmurs of a potential food technology start up bubble – one of the most recent speculations from Mother Jones (https://t.co/4dqlTcsmYc).   Recent news around food delivery platforms, mobile ordering applications, and meal kit membership programs is even catching a fevered momentum with established, traditionally non-food industry companies such as The New York Times (https://t.co/1b1IDNQxYo), Amazon (http://read.bi/1WYbXE0), and Uber (http://bit.ly/1NUT03d).

Investment in the business to consumer (B2C) food technology space is clearly where the current growth and profits live – end users have a steady desire for real time access to food information and choices.  However, to influence real and scalable growth in our food chain – source to consumer – I believe we need to ask our food-tech focused Venture Capitalists a primary question:  what investments are being made in technology solutions in the business to business (B2B) space?  Or perhaps, more profitably, into the business to business to consumer (B2B2C) space?

We have seen some examples of such B2B investment recently in Agtech with the implementation of drones and GPS and materials-tracking technology to give farmers the big data, analytics and resource visibility needed for smarter farming.  A recent article from Farmlogs showcases this movement (http://bit.ly/1T6fSdf. )  I would love to see more financial investment in technologies that are focused on the sourcing of food, the recalling of food, and the ecommerce transactions around our food.  In order to see fundamental change in the future of food, the B2B innovators in food technology need our investment.

The Business of FoodTech: Eating Our Own Tail

Such buzz these days about Food Tech –  how mobile devices and delivery platforms and farming drones and food hubs will redefine how we eat, how we shop, how we farm and how we determine where to go to get our information about the food system…. It’s a lot of buzz.

Smarter professionals than me, focused exclusively on the comings and goings of the food technology universe will tell you we are in an unprecedented time of transition – led in large part by the application of technologies to redefine what we know about food.  These professionals are right.  We are all well served to follow and engage with the likes of Brita Rosenheim (@Baconista), Danielle Gould (@dhgisme, @foodtechconnect), Nina Meyers (@nina_meijers, @foodtechconnect), and Danielle Nierenberg (@DaniNierenberg, @Food_Tank) who make it a mission to stop and absorb the happenings in new world of Food Technology – and share them with us.

With over 20 years in high tech enterprise software, most of which has been focused on High Tech Supply Chain, I can tell you that technology – more specifically software – is only as good as the human beings using it.  Technology is simply a tool for addressing questions.   This, of course, means that food technology and the sector that seemingly has sprung up with a vengeance around us in the past five years, is only as good as the humans asking the questions they seek answers to.   I would further argue that the humans asking the questions they seek answers to are only as good as the very questions they are asking.

Can I get take-out delivered to my home while sitting on my couch, using my two thumbs on my mobile device?  Can vegetables grow upright, in a box, underground, on my counter in my kitchen?  Can I order my morning coffee from the back of the line and have it waiting for me when I reach the counter?  Are the drones flying overhead at industrial farms creating a perception that being a farmer is a profitable and viable career?   Can I pay for my meal by tapping a screen anchored to my table, to avoid waiting for the waitress to bring me the check?  Do eggs developed in a lab make my mayonnaise healthier?

I took a class in college called “War and Technology”.  This class had a cyclical mission – to explore how our human desire for war through the ages shaped the evolution of military technology – and how the evolution of military technology shaped our human desire to go to war.  It’s Ouroboros – or as Wikipedia puts it, “The Ouroboros often symbolizes  introspection, or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things such as the Phoenix which operate in cycles that begin anew as soon as they end.”  The snake ate its tail for me for the first semester of my sophomore year, while I sat in silent horror at the nature of human existence.

Is the food technology space a novelty?  A harbinger?  An adaptation?  This space is as frustrating to me as it is fanciful.  I can only conclude that today’s state may very well be a wake-up call for us to see that we are eating our tails.  A call to stop looking at new food technology as leading “fundamental change” in this food system only to perpetuate the commercialization of said technology until something newer and shinier comes along.  Can we, as consumers, as technologists, as thought-leaders, as producers, as shepherds of the earth, begin to evaluate how we are leading the evolution of the technology and begin to ask better questions?

What say you, FoodieData thinkers?  What questions have you been asking?

The Food Industry’s Sharknado

A curious thing is happening, one can hardly believe it – in towns and major cities, impacting the lives of low wage workers and highly paid venture capitalists.  Sharks are flying through the air, swimming up flooded streets, popping out of drainage pipes, and landing on farms, technology innovation centers and supermarkets across the US, gobbling up and swallowing whole what we once took for granted.

I admit, I have been watching with big eyes from the window of my small suburban Boston neighborhood, sometimes with a Tara Reid like smirk, thinking, this too shall pass.  What I have come to marvel at, though, is what seems to be a perfect storm of paradigm shifts in numerous links within the food industry that seem to be churning all within the span of the last 9 months.

Exhibit A – a phenomenon striking close to home here in Boston:  The Hatfields and McCoys have finally brought their food empire to its knees.  I speak of course of the spiraling plummet of the goliath of New England supermarket chains, the king of discount shopping, Market Basket.  Competitor Stop & Shop has accelerated their online delivery service PeaPod to capitalize on Market Basket’s striking workers and empty shelves, with limited but sufficient success.  The PeaPod driver who delivered my order last night was called up from Connecticut for an extra shift, and was two hours past the guaranteed delivery window because, with three times the demand, Peapod inventory had to be sourced far and wide.  Customer service was quick to offer me $10 off my next order and free delivery for the rest of the month for the delay.   There is blood in Boston Harbor.

Exhibit B – The rise of food delivery startups, that cater to businesses in office parks, busy families, large parties, and now, foodies and those early adopters who expect food lifestyle services at the touch of their mobile device.  Formerly unknown companies like GrubHub, Instacart, Delivery.com, GoodEggs, Blue Apron, SpoonRocket and Caviar are all of a sudden the darlings of the investment and M&A world, being consumed, snapping up rounds of funding and securing news headlines from the likes of Huffington Post and Forbes.   They dive and circle to gorge themselves on the delivery trend first anchored by the likes of Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect.    Fresh food, even organic offerings, are now a commodity that sits on the shelf next to electronics, clothing and hardware at Walmart and Target stores – leaving consumers in the developed world expecting an “always on” capacity for their food desires.

This leads me to my final rumbling – and that of food sourcing platforms.  I have been following the spectacularly hard work of leaders like Provender, FoodTrade, Jackeez and AgLocal as they navigate the challenges of delivering on an efficient ecommerce platform that matches a food source directly with its demand point, to increase local availability, preserve and support small craft producers and accelerate adoption by food service professionals of sustainable, local, traceable product.  I am ready to observe a feeding frenzy in this space soon, followed by the strongest of the food beasties swimming back out into depths to feed again.

A Tough Nut or a Bitter Pill: The Realities of Global Food Safety

The most passionate minds in global food safety and traceability are gathering in Anaheim, CA this week for the Global Food Safety Conference (GFSC).  With mission statements like “One World, One Safe Food Supply”, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers alike are slowly but surely beginning to embrace a significant paradigm shift and fundamental change in the way they prioritize the safety and compliance of their food offerings.

Andrew Smith, author of the article “The Three Pillars of Food Safety in the 21st Century” explains, “At the heart of these changes are two things: The power and influence of the GFSI [Global Food Safety Initiative] in driving a consistent, harmonized approach to food safety and the shift in the certification and audit services towards more professional assessors consistently delivering more valuable assessments.”

His points indicate a slow shift towards global accountability and collaboration.  But in a 2/25 Food Safety News article, “Is FSMA Sparking Concern Abroad?,” it seems that “the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is not held in the highest regard by foreign governments.”  The reasoning behind this, the article goes on to say, is “Some foreign governments are worried that implementation of the legislation will focus more on imported food than on domestic production….He points to China and the European Union for now, but said countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia could also take issue.”

The complexity of this tough nut is defined by not only the operational aspects of maintaining and securing a global supply chain, but by a tight weave of economic and political forces.  It seems our safety has come to this.

For any of you in Anaheim this week for the GFSC, I encourage you to be bold, approach the microphone, and ask the tough questions around accountability and collaboration.

What say you, FoodieData thinkers?

Creating a Better Mousetrap – How the Debate about Food Chain Transformation is Changing

With the proliferation of food safety recalls, sustainability concerns, food availability and resource scalability, compliance and cost to market concerns abound for many whose businesses rely on an efficient food chain.  Amongst a plethora of one-up-one-down analytics has emerged a team approach to problem solving, versions of crowdsourcing techniques, at the local level, to address what all agree is a limping, if not a broken global food chain.

In their 2013 Food Tech Media Funding & Acquisition Trends Report, media and research company Food + Tech Connect reports that VC funding for food startups is accelerating, reflecting the momentum and entrepreneurial vigor around this very challenge.  Three specific examples of virtual communities forming to share ideas and germinate the next change in our global food system have caught my attention in recent weeks. Might this be the genesis for a better mouse trap?

The first example comes from Silicon Valley, California, a community long regarded as the land of eternal possibility – where the brightest minds hunker down to hatch a better plan.  The effort to problem solve and the journey to fruition is the reward, and some high tech leaders, like Ali Partovi, a foodie and passionate local entrepreneur, has stepped in to encourage the best technology minds to noodle on how recreate and change the food system.  In a recent article, “Silicon Valley’s Next Big Goal: Fixing Our Broken Food System” Silicon Valley vanguards were encouraged to fundamentally rethink the systems governing our food, many of which we have come to take for granted.

Recently in New York City, Food & Tech Connect sponsored NYC Food +Tech Meetup: How New Tech is Transforming Restaurants.  For the benefit of a packed audience, the meetup brought to the microphone six innovative technology entrepreneurs in an accessible, collaborative model, to discuss their work to revolutionize the food industry.

Finally, the percolation of food ideas is a daily exercise at Boston’s Babson College. Their Food Sol “action tank for food Entrepreneurship of All Kinds™” Community Table Workshops and formal “Quick Service Incubator”   formalizes collaboration for tech innovators.  The program encourages the blending of ideas and solutions, by creating an environment for entrepreneurs to pitch their food start up ideas and receive feedback from small groups of fellow entrepreneurs and expert panelists.

There are no doubt numerous other examples of how local technology leaders are combining forces with their fellow foodies and supply chain experts to concoct version 2.0 of our food chain, and begin the transformation towards a better mousetrap.

What say you, FoodieData thinkers?

The Spotlight of Social Media: How Does the Food Chain Really Work?

You cannot scan your news feed or check your Twitter or Face Book account these days without seeing some post about food safety.  Whether it be bacteria tainted infant formula in China, unsafe handing of bean sprouts in Germany or the infamous Mad Cow disease scandal, the proliferation of stories of unsafe foods in our local food chain has now become a frequent and unwelcome buzzing in the background.

Stories of such outbreaks spread instantaneously across social media, leading this humble blogger to wonder about the role of information technology in changing both producer and consumer behavior.  The “pink slime” beef incident in the US recently lit a fire under the issue of the media in public safety.  Meatingplace, the meat processing industry’s trade magazine, fired back and wrote an article about the incident and role social media and non-food experts played in creating consumer fear.   Last year, a shopper at Safeway in Arizona made a splashy social media play to a local news station when she found a chicken foot shrink wrapped in a package of chicken breasts.  These kind of local stories have the viral capacity to lead consumers to wonder, just who is minding my food?

How well does the average consumer really understand how the food we consume is produced, processed and brought to market?  The complexity of sourcing, tracking, reporting, packaging, marketing, and distributing through a variety of end user channels is vastly different for fresh perishables like summer tomatoes and lettuce, proteins like beef and fish, and packaged goods like breakfast cereal and frozen dinners.  Add Nutrition Labeling and Allergen policies mandating the food system make ingredients and nutritional data more transparent to consumers and we are all swimming in one complicated food chain stew.

As consumers read more news stories, scan new product packaging and begin to worry about the safety of food on their dinner tables, will the inevitable proliferation of social media news change our dialog about food?  Will the average consumer connect the dots between a local product recall and the source of that product?

What say you, FoodieData thinkers?


Puzzling by a Data Minded Foodie

A strange thing happens when you spend almost 15 years working with Supply Chain software – you start to notice the complexity of the world around you – how things inter-relate, how dependencies are formed and how end user satisfaction can evaporate with something as simple as an inefficient response.

This Food Geek wasn’t thinking about much more than whether she could make it across the farmers’ market in time to purchase the last of the rosemary sourdough bread loaves when in the beautiful summer morning buzz, I found myself thinking about the market as relationship of entities – the foot traffic, the supply and demand, the cardboard boxes broken down behind the tents, the uber selective shoppers requesting samples, loading up their tote bags and hefting CSA shares back to their cars.

A questions came fast, and started to germinate in the back of my mind:

How does “Technology” , with an intentional capital T , serve, or miss the opportunity to serve, the larger concept of the food chain?  Where T = software, infrastructure, front end APIs, mobile, biotech, startup governance, analytics – any and all.

Then, directionality:  WHERE in the food chain is technology advantageous?  WHAT exists today?  Does it serve and can it scale? How adaptable is the technology rooted there today, and can it efficiently flex and change with time, market, policy, and environmental pressures on the system?

Next:  Gap Analysis – what part of the food chain does not leverage technology today?  Why not?  What will be the impact on not adding technology to those links, as these aforementioned pressure on the system increase? Where is the data coming from and what form does it need to take to feed the technology engines?  How does that data differ between the various food streams such as Perishables, Non-Perishables, Proteins, and Beverages?

What role do standards and governmental mandates play in how food is measured, traced, recalled, distributed, labeled, packaged, shipped, disposed of, recycled, and imported?  Would technology serve to help suppliers of all sizes comply and succeed?

So Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, I just know it….when one thinks about the application of technology to the food chain, in support of the rapid changes going on in Food (with an intentional capital F) today.

My question is:   As a marketing and business development executive, how can I find a way to add value to this puzzle?