For entrepreneurs and investors in the agtech startup space, David Friedberg is a major celebrity. When he sold his weather data startup The Climate Corporation to Monsanto for $1 billion in 2013 – achieving that elusive “unicorn” status – he put the category on the map. Ever since, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have flocked to apply the latest in technology to the food and agriculture industries in an effort to cure it of its many woes, including climate change, obesity and the dominance of a few mega agrifood businesses globally.
Since selling Climate Corp, Friedberg became an investor himself, quietly building a portfolio of companies from farm to fork for his investment company The Production Board over the last five years. (We revealed that portfolio on AFN a few weeks ago.)
In this first edition of our new podcast Future Food, I talk to Friedberg about his vision for the food system of the future, how he’s building his investment portfolio, which food trends he finds hot –or not — and his moonshot idea. We also talk about how he built Climate Corp and the “push or pull” challenge of deploying technology in agriculture.
Friedberg is a visionary and the insights he offers on what and how we will be eating in the future are inspiring, exciting, if perhaps a little scary.
Below is a short excerpt from the Future Food podcast, which you can download here or on your favorite podcasting app.
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LBT: What you think the future food system will look like in 2050?
“2050 is a long time away and it’s a short time away. In the span of how food systems evolve, I’d say it’s probably a shorter time away. It takes a long time for technologies and markets to converge when it comes to the kind of multi-faceted systems that produce our food.
I would say that there are some opportunities that are pretty relevant in the very near term that are going to affect the systems of food production but, they’re going to take some time to be realized so, what may be kind of obvious today, is 30 years out from being incorporated.
“Some of the things that I think are kind of going to drive change, there’s going to be a greater kind of distribution and specialization in the production of the components of food. If you think about the historical context, we grew our vegetables or a plant in a field and then ate that plant and it had a number of macro and micronutrients. There would be some things that were missing from it and you may not necessarily get the right ratio of target nutrients in that plant. And then you would eat it and then you would have to go eat another plant to balance out your diet and get the rest of the nutrients you needed.
“But it turns out that using chemistry and bio-engineering, and other kinds of production techniques, we’ve been able to get very, very good at cost-effectively producing each of the individual components of nutrition and flavor, and do so in a way that’s more sustainable meaning it takes less energy and has less of a permanent effect on environmental factors to produce it and at a lower cost.
“So, as an example of that, historically we’ve seen microbes that are used to make beer and wine; we take yeast and we feed it sugar, water and it kind of secretes ethanol. It’s possible to use microbes to make a number of other compounds to make a protein, for example. And so, rather than grow an entire cow, why not just make the specific proteins you want to get out of the cow.
“Historically we’ve used these whole food systems where you produce an entire food source but it isn’t necessarily complete and by specializing and getting very good at making things in a very specific way, we can make a complete food program available and a complete food source available at a much lower cost, more sustainably to people.
“Then there’s definitely the trend of personalization of food. Traditionally food has been made as a product, so here’s a tomato and everyone eats a tomato but what if you had a tomato and I had a tomato that was different for each of us or you had a shake or a smoothie that had a bunch of nutrients in it that was personalized to my genes and my health factors and the things I’m concerned about. I can actually eat from my target objectives and so, rather than just kind of scouring the world of food products, I’m really just specifically stating my intention around, hey look, I’ve got these genes and I’ve got these health issues right now and I’ve got these health objectives, and there can be a system that can deliver to you a personalized food product whether it be a sandwich or a smoothie or a salad with a bunch of micro and macronutrients perhaps probiotic organisms that are beneficial to you.
“I think we’re moving away from a productized world; we’re seeing this already in CPG where in the last 30 years we’ve moved from having a handful of big brand products to what looks a lot more like tribalism, you know, this fragmentation of brands where the microbreweries are taking over the Budweiser’s of the world. And the same is true of all other kinds of CPG brand categories. If you take that to its logical extreme, everyone’s getting their product; everyone’s getting their version of food; and everyone’s getting their personalized food to meet their own taste preferences and their own health objectives and their own genes.
“So, the food system, whatever it looks like, whether it’s a bunch of robots showing up at my door bringing me every meal or, a drone that drops it off through my roof or just a box in my kitchen that prints all my food, will ultimately be delivering food personalized to me, not taking a bunch of products off a shelf, giving me half of what I really need and the other person’s getting half of what they really need.”
LBT: You’ve spoken about the idea that consumers may no longer want or need kitchens if their food can be produced, manufactured, personalized and delivered nearby. I live in New York, so that sounds a lot like a New Yorkers’ life and it definitely was mine before I had children! But after that, I wanted to cook my own food for my baby to be sure he was getting the nutrition he needs from sources I trusted. So I’m wondering, if we’re heading for a future where we’re going to get a lot of our food delivered and personalized, there’s going to need to be an element of trust in the creators of those foods. What are your thoughts about how to ensure this reputation and trust?
“I think we’re at point A, we’re going to point B and, I think there’s 100 ways to get there and we have to take the way that earns trust because otherwise it just doesn’t work.
“How we do that? When the internet first allowed you to buy stuff, there were times when I was nervous to put in my debit card number because I was afraid, why the heck would I put my credit card number into the internet, it’s going to get stolen, I don’t trust it? And this was a big issue with early ecommerce adoption on the internet; people didn’t trust it, they didn’t know it and it took a while. And then you made your first purchase and after you made your first purchase, your friends made their purchase and suddenly the convenience and the benefits of it started to be realized and it took a long time. But all of a sudden, it was at a tipping point and now everyone has no problem putting their credit card in and buying everything online.
“So I don’t think it’s too dissimilar from other technologies affecting how humans live and provided that there is a kind of measurable known understanding of the environmental benefits, the health benefits, the sustainability of it, the cost of it and how it’s improving along all those axis, it’s only a matter of time until it succeeds; the path it takes to get there is the billion dollar question.”
LBT: If you had a moon shot idea, what would it be?
“I’ll tell you, my moon shot idea is completely unoriginal. My moon shot idea is to have the Star Trek replicator available on everyone’s desktop; it’s like the perfect invention. It sums up all of the problems we have in humanity and creates one elegant solution. You just take a bunch of atoms and you use infinitely-renewable energy sources to rearrange them instantaneously in front of you and you get exactly what you want out of this box. You know, Captain Picard, if you’ve every watched Star Trek: Next Generation, just walks up to the machine and says Earl Gray extra hot and out comes his tea and those molecules are made right on demand using an infinitely re-suppliable energy source and, boom, he’s got it.
“I do think that it is a profound capability and every set of tools that we might engineer or build our company around is one step or one iteration towards that sort of notion. Of course, there’s no passive feasibility there but it is a grand concept.”
Listen to the Future Food podcast to find out details about The Production Board’s investment portfolio, which food trends Friedberg thinks are hot, building an agtech startup, and more about his vision for the food system of the future.