An Interview with Food Edge Founder Lauren Abda on the Importance of Disruptive Technology in the Food Industry

Boston based Branchfood will host Food Edge, its 4th annual summit virtually on May 4th and 6th. Food Edge brings together brands, startups, and researchers for New England’s largest food summit. This year, Helikon Consulting Founder and CEO, Kate Krueger, will be speaking on cellular agriculture, as the food industry becomes increasingly interested and aware of innovation and new burgeoning markets.

Headligning speakers this year include David Kaplan from the Tufts Kaplan Lab, Chuck Muth, Chief Growth Officer for Beyond Meat, John Pattinson, Co-Founder and CEO of Cultured Decadence, and Luke MacQueen, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer of Boston Meats, among many others.

Helikon spoke with Lauren Abda, Founder and CEO of Branchfood and Food Edge, about the importance of disruptive technology in a growing industry. Abda holds her MS in Food Policy, Nutrition and Entrepreneurship from the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, and has collaborated with multiple food entrepreneurs during her time founding and leading Branchfood. The company is now Boston’s hub for innovation and new business development in the food industry, located in Downtown Crossing at Milk Street.

Abda described Food Edge’s mission: “Food Edge is New England’s leading food summit that brings together the industry’s largest brands, disruptive startups, and top researchers to collaborate for the betterment of the food industry. Food Edge seeks to educate industry stakeholders on the latest trends and technologies that are shaping the industry and inspire collaboration for a better food future. Technology has always been a driver of food industry change and adaptation, but now more than ever, entrepreneurs are developing technology with impact in mind,” Abda said.

Consumer purchasing is driven by a number of factors, including their own health and the health of our planet. “[New technological developments are ] inspired by consumers who want to buy products that provide better health outcomes, and contribute to a more sustainable food system and are environmentally friendly. Looking to the future, technological advancements that have a positive impact on the food system will continue to play an important role in defining the future of food.”

Alternative proteins are seen by many as a positive disruptor in the food industry. They have the potential to provide a sustainable source of protein for generations to come. Abda spoke on the impact they would have on market share saying, “They are disruptive in the sense that they are introducing new options and products to the market that weren’t there before and presenting consumers with alternative protein rich foods. New products ultimately take market share from larger more established companies who, in the case of protein, built and advocated for a terrestrial and marine-centric diet. ”

Abda went on to explain, “Food Edge seeks to raise awareness about innovation at the forefront of the food industry. Given the relatively new and numerous market entrants working on plant-based meat alternatives, acellular agriculture, and cultured meat, we had to discuss this emerging area of food at the event. In so many ways the success of companies like Eat JUST, Impossible Foods, and Perfect Day launched a thousand ships and we’re starting to see many new startups enter the market in their wake. It’s exciting to watch a whole new market emerge.”

When asked what excites her about the innovation in the industry, Abda cited the pressing issues, including: climate change, population growth, food security, and the ability to slow the negative impact of these changes with new technology. She also cited food system inefficiencies as an area ripe for innovation.

“High tech food and innovation have the potential to solve some of the industry’s most pressing challenges with greater efficiency,” Abda said. “Under the pressure of population growth and climate change, inefficiencies in the food system will be magnified. Adapting new ways of thinking and conducting business can support the evolution of the food system to a healthier and more sustainable one.”

A specific example of this? Cultured lobster. The company Cultured Decadence strives to make cultured seafood, with a focus on lobster cells, which are extracted and grown in their labs in Madison, WI. “The demand for lobster far outweighs the supply,” Abda explained. “By producing lobster in other ways, like what Cultured Decadence aspires to do, we can ensure the preservation of the species while satisfying the demand for generations to come.”

Food Edge and Branchfood seek to connect industry change agents who are passionate about food and see opportunity for a brighter future. Today, the food industry is rooted in traditional businesses and systems. I was curious what Abda thought startups could bring to such an old industry.

“Startups and entrepreneurs bring creative thinking, skill sets, and new ways of addressing challenges. They take a lean approach to solution development given limited resources. In most cases, they also bring a collaborative mindset and seek to involve industry experts as well as others who can help inform their ideas.”

So what about collaboration? How will we bridge the old and the new, and bring everything from the traditional food industry together with the biochemistry of a small, alternative protein startup to change and innovate for the betterment of our food system at large? And furthermore, why is that worth investing in?

“Solving some of the food industry’s greatest challenges require complementary skill sets, expertise, and idea sharing,” she said. “Collaboration is key to making meaningful progress towards a better food system and we see it happening industry wide now more than ever before,” Abda said. “We’ve also observed that food entrepreneurs particularly tend to be very collaborative, and as a result attract great support for their business endeavors. Given the multitude of opportunities for innovation and interest on behalf of corporate companies in startup acquisition to fuel their growth, we believe we’re just scratching the surface on the potential for investment in the space.”

I asked a similar question about how policy can play a role in implementing technology, so that it has a lasting impact on our food systems.

“Policy establishes a system of principles for decision making. Policies that change prices, income, or the other demand factors will affect consumers’ food choice and therefore can have major implications on the industry.”

To provide an example, Abda referenced product labelling, an area that is sometimes controversial in the cellular agriculture space. She specifically focused on health claims.

“Health claims are statements about a food and the impact that it can have on your health. Given consumer trends in favor of products that provide better health outcomes, making claims on packaging could influence consumer purchasing. In the European Union, proposed regulation seeks to severely restrict language used to describe a plant-based food, its taste, or function by referring to familiar ‘dairy’ terminology. This could have far-reaching consequences for plant-based alternatives to dairy and the consumers who seek to buy them,” she said.

Lastly, I asked about the challenges she sees, as someone who is trying to bring forth conversation related to high tech and traditional food systems at Food Edge in May.

“The onset of COVID presented many challenges for emerging companies to navigate as they bring new products, services, and technology to market. Time delays and the inability to meet in person impeded business development and new partnership opportunities. For instance, emerging companies almost always have strong sampling programs to support their product in stores to attract new customers. This was a big part of Beyond Meat’s retail launch to get consumers tasting the novel product and like it enough to buy it. Due to the inability to sample products, new brands have really struggled selling off retail store shelves which has had major implications for their sales goals, supply chain, and growth projections.”

Food Edge will happen virtually on May 4th + 6th. Check out the 2021 Agenda here.

Written by Thea Burke for Helikon Consulting

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Helikon Consulting

Helikon Consulting

Scientific consulting in alternative proteins — plant-based proteins, cellular agriculture, and cell-based meat