Innovation in the Food Industry

I attended the new breakfast series, Polsky Entrepreneurial Outlook: Food 2019, at the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation this morning. It was a full house! Wowza!

The panel discussion by a diverse group of panelists was quite enlightening. They discussed a number of Chicago-born success stories, pointed out the tremendous opportunity for innovative solutions in the food industry, and also addressed some common challenges, which include raising capital, evolving distribution channel, competition etc. But of course, someone had to bring up the elephant in the room — Amazon. (I wish I could insert sound effects here, or every time someone mentions “Amazon” as a “T” in the SWOT chart.)

A few things that caught my attention are:

  • Brand loyalty. As in, building a following, cultivating brand loyalty among your customers, and taking the long-term view. Sage advice.
  • Food waste. This is a huge problem. Absolutely. A panelist called it a “multi-billion dollar market.” There is plenty of room to innovate in this area.
  • Protein alternatives. Very interesting. And crunchy; there were talks about eating insects. I can’t say that I’m excited about eating these so-called protein alternatives, but I am interested in the development of the field. As a scientist, I am also curious about petri dish meat. That said, a key point mentioned by one of the panelists is that soy and pea protein are the standards. Innovators and entrepreneurs, ya need to beat soy and pea to get ahead!
  • Market. Though there will always be a demand for food, you might want to spend some effort in defining your company’s goals and more importantly, the identity of the company. One of the panelists emphasized that investors are looking to invest in disruptive technologies but not incremental improvements. However, it does not mean that you should not pursue ways to capture the market using incremental improvements. Know thyself.
  • The disconnect between tech startups and consumers. This is real, and a tough one. Who would purchase your crunchy protein alternatives? Who would invest in your company? While the time may come for your products to appeal to the majority of consumers, you need to craft your pitch and the message to your audience today.

Food tech and ag-tech are sometimes overlooked, but they can be attractive avenues for biotech companies. Take Leprino Foods as an example. They sell cheese, lots of cheese. Even though they appear to be in the restaurant business, in fact, Leprino Foods is every bit a biotech company, along with about 50 patents in their portfolio.

Check out Leprino’s story on Forbes:

Bon appetit!

p.s. The next Polsky Entrepreneurial Outlook is on February 1st. The theme is therapeutics. Should be interesting!

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