Re-shaping The Food System Through Entrepreneurship: The Time Is Now

By guest author Ingeborg Gasser-Kriss, advisor at KICKSTART, owner and founder of Agent21.

I have often argued over the last few years that there is no better time than now for breakthrough innovation in FoodTech and AgriTech, due to the crisis of our food system, and the urgency attached to improving the negative impact of our diet on human and planetary health.

In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the meaning of “crisis” and “urgency” to a whole new level.

On the one hand, the simple fact that food is on top of the list of critical goods has been highlighted dramatically. Citizens and consumers around the world — many of them for the first time in their lives! — have been inspired or forced to reflect what purchases they really need to make, and what goods or services they can do without if they have to, at least for a while. Food will never feature in the latter category. We need it for our survival, every day.

On the other hand, while our food system has not always been at the centre of attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is irrefutable evidence that it is part of the problem — and certainly part of the solution. FoodNavigator on 22nd April 2020 informed that a poor diet and “ultra-processed foods” are a root cause behind increased mortality from COVID-19; that obesity was the biggest risk factor for death from COVID-19 in under 50 year old people who had contracted the virus, according to a new study from the US Centre for Disease Control based on 99 countries and 14 states from March. Tim Spector, Professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, was quoted as saying: “Obesity and poor diet is emerging as one of the biggest risk factors for a severe response to Covid-19 infection that can no longer be ignored.”

At the same time, factory farming and the way we raise, kill and eat animals are under increased scrutiny for providing the conditions under which a pandemic such as COVID-19 can come into being. The connection between animal welfare and food safety has been brought to the forefront of the discussion.

Novel threats to food security have also made headlines when social distancing measures and border lockdowns made it impossible for a human workforce to perform the harvest in the traditional way.

With long, complex global supply chains proving vulnerable, solutions that connect consumers directly with local food makers have become an even more attractive alternative.

Traditional retail has come to its limits too, with restrictions placed on the number of people in a supermarket at the same time, and the weakness of our last mile delivery systems exposed. What good is it having our warehouses full of (partly perishable) food when we cannot get it to the people?

The closure of restaurants has forced the acceleration of behaviors and business models that have long been growing: takeaway, delivery, meal kits and ready-to-cook solutions have seen an upsurge. New, better models will be needed to serve increased demand.

The list goes on. The need for reinvention — and the opportunity for reinvention — is bigger than ever as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Entrepreneurs in FoodTech, AgriTech and RetailTech will play a critical role in shaping the “new normal” to be a healthier, safer, more resilient food system — and possibly a more humane one? And while we cannot yet anticipate the full extent of changes brought on by the COVID-19 disruption, several topics are emerging that will require bold new ideas and business models.

  • Food that promotes general health, helps prevent diseases like diabetes and obesity, and helps strengthen the immune system, not least in seniors
  • Viable, scalable alternatives to factory farming — including but not limited to plant based proteins, and lab grown meat
  • Tech solutions to limit the dependence on a human workforce (with unacceptable working conditions) in many sectors of agriculture, including drones, robotics and sensors
  • Novel technologies to make our distribution and delivery systems more flexible and resilient, including autonomous fleets
  • Retail models that limit or fully eliminate the need for human interaction and extend opening hours
  • New restaurant concepts with autonomous or automated operations, serving high quality fresh food; including next generation vending
The photograph by Jessica Keller, Ringier

Entrepreneurs whose proven ideas address these innovation challenges could scale up quickly. KICKSTART Innovation in Zurich, with its specific Food & Retail Tech vertical, is now taking applications for its 2020 program.

KICKSTART has made it their mission to bridge the gap between startups, corporates, cities, foundations and universities to accelerate deep tech innovation. The model is to leverage a broad network of partners from the unique Swiss ecosystem: leading academia, governments and institutions, investors and foundations, and large corporates. The program centers on creating PoC partnerships and facilitate scaleup — and with partners like Migros and Coop on board, it has been a springboard to scale for many FoodTech startups in the past years.

A crisis, and the aftermath of a crisis, is a time for entrepreneurial courage and action. The elements of the gameboard are shifting, and those who sit back and wait for the pieces to fall into their new places will have to adapt to the outcome rather than be able to shape it.

It is also the time for entrepreneurial responsibility and commitment. Our food system is not going to rearrange itself into the future-proof, resilient, healthier and more humane “new normal” that we have been demanding so passionately. What is necessary and what is possible now converge in a unique moment in history, when brave startups and their future-savvy scaling partners can forge new alliances to make a difference.