Great podcast with Derin Alemli, COO of New Age Meats, a startup combining plant-based ingredients with cultured animal meat. We discussed why combining plant based and celular meat is such a massive opportunity, the benefits of building a strong brand, how they think about the competitive space, the importance of sustainability to their approach, the value of cross functional skillsets to cutting edge startups and more!
Really interesting to get into compostable plastics with Tony Bova, CEO and founder of Mobius, a startup developing compostable plastics. We discussed how plastic use goes up with regenerative farming which makes compostable plastics an essential part of a sustainable food system, how plastics fit into circular economy, the careful consideration they gave the plastics value chain when deciding their go to market strategy, what universities can do to encourage more startups, how he balanced starting a startup with finishing a PHD and more!
Inspiring chat with Marcia Woods, founder and CEO of FreshSpoke, a marketplace that makes it easy to source local food by sustainability tapping into excess logistics capacity. We discussed why “local” is the future of food, the importance of logistics data to sustainable supply chains, how they managed multiple company pivots and what that meant for the types of investors who were most interested, how to balance supply and demand when the marketplace has more than 2 sides how to build an amazing founding team, where her passion for sustainability and entrepreneurship came from and more!
Really interesting podcast with Shadi Bakour, the CEO and Co-Founder of Pathwater, a company whose aluminum water bottles are designed to be refilled and reused infinitely unlike single use plastic water bottles. We discussed the importance of balance customer expectations and sustainability, how many times the typical path water bottle is reused and what its carbon footprint is, what it takes to expand a product across multiple countries, how celebrity association has been a game changer, responding to demand with multiple product lines, and more!
A great chat on the importance of expanding our diets into a broader range of plants with Marc Diaz, SVP of Business Development at TerViva, a company which uses the Pongamia tree to create new food products and sequester soil carbon. We discussed the reasons why Pongamia has been under-utilized up to now, the important role soil can play in sequestering carbon, the recent revolution in plant based foods, the changing investment landscape for future of food companies, the importance of balancing technologies focused on both the mitigation and adaptation of climate change and more!
Dived deep into supply chain sustainability with Allyson Quijano, Chief Sustainability Officer at Bext360, a SaaS platform to manage supply chain traceability and sustainability. We discussed how sustainability and risk management intersect at enterprises, how the team’s experience in the Congo drove the development of Bext360, how circular economy can affect traditional supply chain models, why blockchain technology is an amazing opportunity for green finance, how COVID has effected the understanding of supply chains and more!
MCWALTER: Could you tell us a little bit about Bext360?
QUIJANO: Best360 is a technology company working to digitize supply chains and prove the origin, authenticity, and sustainability of global commodities. In particular we are working to expand brand and corporation’s commitments to comprehensive traceability in the supply chains of products like coffee, cocoa, palm, essential oils and cotton from first mile origin to your retail space.
MCWALTER: How do you use blockchain technology?
QUIJANO: We use the blockchain for some of its most basic aspects like immutable data tracking to improve the integrity of customer data. The crypto aspect of blockchain is also very purposeful for our business because we think of tokenization as a significant game changer in terms of trade finance. Because we tie into a cryptocurrency, you could execute payments at the first mile for your producers, if you’d like to. Because we use tokenisation, banks can use it to establish agreement or consensus around the specific value of a product at the point of processing. So this is where we think that the blockchain is absolutely necessary and makes that tokenisation aspect incredibly attractive and quite necessary for the changes that we’re looking to make in supply chain systems.
MCWALTER: What sorts of technologies do you need to integrate with?
QUIJANO: We use them all and certainly plug into whatever systems are available. We’re working on building our portfolio to make carbon transactions more specific to each tier of the supply chain. So each processor in our system could offset their carbon or could have specific insight and analytics into what their carbon footprint is. For example, at the retail stage, we would look to plug into a point of sale system so that if you’re a customer buying a bag of coffee, and you want to offset the carbon footprint for that particular pounds of coffee, that could be made accessible through our system.
Importantly, when customers don’t have systems that go all the way to the first mile, their first question is, ‘how do you get the data?” Maybe they’re a fashion company, and they plug into a cotton manufacturer, but the first four stages of that supply chain they have no insight into at all. So we use smaller hardware that operates offline, we use Bluetooth connectivity, and it collects a bunch of data, and help our customers design what information they want to collect from the producers. And we can plug that technology into scales, into printers, so you can have digital receipts. And that helps to get that first batch of data into the system. And then typically, the rest of it can be automated through existing inventory management systems that our customers already have in play.
MCWALTER: COVID seems to have brought supply chains to the forefront of many conversations, have you seen that?
QUIJANO: We are ecstatic that people like my parents are talking about supply chains! I think this makes us better consumers and enables us to pass the parent test. Just increasing the general knowledge of supply chain complications has already been helpful for us and our customers, because we feel like people better understand how complicated it is, for example, to get coffee beans from Central America to your morning cup of coffee.
MCWALTER: Are there opportunities for founders to build tools that improve the sustainability of brands?
QUIJANO: I would actually lead more in terms of sustainability services to corporations and brands. If you look at fashion companies, grocery store retailers or large coffee companies, sustainability is still not integral to their business. They are often part of a separate unit. A bit of my role is to work across business units to merge their goals into larger insights around sustainability. We spend an awful lot of time sharing information with people because often they don’t know where to begin. And I think so many brands are afraid of being under the microscope. I think any technology that makes it a less scary process and helps them navigate the smartest technologies, would be quite interesting.
Really interesting chat with Peter Majeranowski, CEO of Tyton Biosciences which uses biotechnology to recycle cotton and polyester for nearly complete re-use in fashion. We discussed how Tyton started as a develop of biofuels, how their technique differs from conventional fabric recycling, how regulators are thinking about the new circular economy, the ways celebrities can have a positive impact on sustainable fashion, whether we should have carbon labeling of fabrics, how Peter’s background as a US naval officer was the beginning of his passion for sustainability and more!
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: Could you tell us a little bit about Tyton BioScience?
MAJERANOWSKI: Tyton BioSciences is bringing to market new technology that can recycle textiles AND apparel. We specifically target polyester, cotton or poly cotton blends.
MCWALTER: What drove the initial decision to start Tyton BioSciences?
MAJERANOWSKI: It’s a bit of a journey; a family friend approached me who was a very famous scientist who invented the first polio vaccine, Dr. Hilary Koprowski. He started his own plant science foundation and had a wonderful variant of tobacco that could be used for making biofuels, but he needed help commercializing it. At the time I was working in finance, and I thought this would be a fun opportunity to really build something and make a difference so I helped them start the company. We needed to develop a platform, or technology that could extract all the goodies from the tobacco. And that’s where my cofounder Iulian came in. We started Tyton almost by accident to help commercialize that. And about three years ago, someone approached us and said, “Can you extract anything of value from textiles using your platform?” And we did and quickly realized that there was a market for that. Suddenly we started getting cold calls from major consumer brands, and we knew we were onto something.
When we see a closet full of clothing, we see it as molecules and cellulose is one of them. And the other one is the monomers that make polyester. Traditionally, cellulose is coming from cotton or tree pulp processes. And the polyester monomers are coming from the oil and gas industry. We’re able to leave those resources in nature, and instead extract those same resources from our landfill-bound waste, and putting it back into the fashion economy.
MCWALTER: How much fabric are you processing today?
MAJERANOWSKI: I should point out that we’re still scaling the technology. At the beginning of 2020, we were at the kilograms a day level. And now we’re on track to be at the tonne per day level by the end of this year. We’re flexible, of course, but I could see our technology being deployed close to both the end markets, like the United States and also close to the manufacturing hubs in Asia or Central America, because textiles, specifical apparel is very wasteful. You have about 50% loss of raw materials from the beginning through the end of the supply chain — just the final step of cutting and sewing loses 15-20% because you’re cutting patterns out of squares or rectangles. So being close to the manufacturing hub, we’d love to be able to take all that waste and put it right back into the supply chain so that we can make clothing closer to a 99 or 98% yield versus a 50% yield.
MCWALTER: How close to price parity is your process vs traditional fabric recycling?
MAJERANOWSKI: It’s a primary concern, because when the economics hang together and you can create a new market for a thing, invisible hands will really move things fast and accelerate it. So to make something truly sustainable, pun intended, I think the economics have to be very good and that means price parity. And so we are projecting to have price parity or near price parity as we scale and that’s mainly because we have very high recovery yields approaching 90% with both cotton and polyester and we can even process the very hard to deal with poly cotton blends.
MCWALTER: How are regulators responding to new economic models like circular economy fashion?
MAJERANOWSKI: It’s very early days but we’re seeing it more and more in Europe. I think last year the UK, proposed a one pence tax on all clothing in order to fund a recycling fund. It didn’t go through, but you’re seeing things like that in France, where clothing brands can no longer landfill or incinerate clothing. I think that’s part of the motivation for brands to be looking at solutions like ours because they’re afraid that regulation may be around the corner.
MCWALTER: How are apparel brands measuring their sustainability?
MAJERANOWSKI: Every major brand now has a pretty robust sustainability team. There’s usually a lifecycle assessment (LCA) expert. And so we’ve done an LCA and as it stands now, our LCA is is quite positive. But that, you know, will always be a dynamic thing that we continue to update and upgrade as we scale. But to your exact question, “how do you measure these things”, LCA is just one piece of the puzzle, you also want to make sure that you’re not using chemistry that causes more harm than good which might not be measured by an LCA. A lot of brands are very cognizant of that and are starting to look at better tools to measure sustainability.
MCWALTER: Should apparel be carbon labelled to help consumers make more informed decisions?
MAJERANOWSKI: No one’s ever asked me that before, but I think it makes a lot of sense. The labels that we have right now are generally some care instructions, and maybe information on the fiber. But a study in Europe found think 40% of labels are inaccurate on your clothing. That shows you how hard it would be to have an accurate labeling system in regard to environmental impact, but I love the idea. It’s, it’s just like, with food, right? It gives choice to consumers, do I know this is high in fat, but I’m gonna go for it anyway. It helps people own their choices. And so the concept is great but implementation is going to be hard. We’re gonna have to really think about that.
MCWALTER: I’ve been slightly surprised by the lack of celebrity involvement with how climate and fashion intersect, how do you see it?
MAJERANOWSKI: I think celebrity plays a huge part in fashion and it would be great to see more celebrity involvement in advocating for sustainability. You’re starting to see some, Emma Watson comes to mind, she’s made it a real central issue, there have been a few others, but I would love to see more celebrity behind it.
I think maybe it’s just a little bit of a lack of awareness. I live and breathe this every day and so I’m always thinking about it. But when I go to cocktail parties, or when I used to be able to come to cocktail parties, and I talk about what I do, people are really shocked to hear about the impact of fashion. And, and so it’s a really interesting thing because fashion is how we really express ourselves, it’s how we kind of put on the cover to our book and project who we are to people. And so when people come to realize that that projection is really very harmful, that it might be contrary to their own personal brand there is an opportunity to increase awareness and that will help get us to the major groundswell that we need to make changes.
MCWALTER: What in your background led you to focus on sustainability?
MAJERANOWSKI: A very unlikely place, the Navy, I was a naval officer for six years. And two seeds were planted in my brain. The first was when I was on my first ship boarding vessels that were smuggling oil out of Iraq. And I remember thinking, one night, when I was on one of those smuggled ships you know, we risked so much treasure and blood for a natural resource that often is in the hands of some bad actors. And so I thought there had to be a better way and a cleaner way.
The second seed was planted by thinking through the power of economics to move things in a positive way. Specifically, that came from a tour I had in the Pentagon, where I ended up in Iraq and part of the Coalition Provisional Authority working in private sector development, trying to figure out how to jumpstart the private sector in Iraq in order to really helped the country and move them along a positive pathway. That did not go as planned, but that’s really where my passion came from. And now it’s my favorite thing, combining policy, economics and the environment. And so I wake up every day fired up to make Tyton a big success and to commercialize our tech and help our planet.
MCWALTER: How is the US military thinking in terms of decarbonization?
MAJERANOWSKI: Definitely, it is. As I mentioned, we started our roots in biofuels and the military has pushed for a long time, biofuels and alternative energy because they see that as a major strategic initiative that they don’t want to have to rely on oil. Of course, now we have increased domestic production but that’s not a forever thing. And so, the military has been great in terms of looking at biofuel and funding a lot of research in that space. They also look a lot at preferred materials. And so there’s been a lot of money and pure research money coming out of the US military in terms of preferred materials, recycling, recycling of textiles, specifically because you also don’t want uniforms to get into the wrong hands and they need to be fully disposed of. In general, the military has shown a lot of leadership in this space.
MCWALTER: It had never struck me, but yeah, uniform recycling across the top two or three largest militaries in the world, I mean, that’s a billion dollar company right there!
I became a cellular meat convert while chatting to Jalene Anderson-Baron! She is the cofounder of Future Fields, a biotech startup enabling cheaper development of cellular ag. We discussed how Future Fields is working to get cellular meat to price parity with conventional meat, how large food companies are reacting to cellular meat, whether the future kitchen includes a desktop meat maker, what it is was like attending YCominator’s first remote cohort, their plans for 2021 and more!
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: Thanks for having me. Fantastic to start. Could you tell us a little bit about future fields?
ANDERSON-BARON: We’re a biotechnology startup located in Edmonton, Canada founded in 2018. We basically make the most important ingredient for cell-based meats which is cell growth media. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the cellular agriculture industry, but one of the main barriers right now to scaling up commercialization is the cost of production. And the growth media makes up around 90% of that cost right now, it’s incredibly expensive, and it really doesn’t allow for products to be created at price parity with conventional agricultural products. So that’s where we’re currently focused.
MCWALTER: What is your founding story?
ANDERSON-BARON: We actually originally started out as a consumer facing cell-based meat company producing chicken products. Our first MVP was a chicken nugget in early 2019, using commercially available growth media. And that was costing us $400-$500 a liter so that single chicken nugget cost us around $300 to make. And I think if you look at it at a per pound, it was around $3,000. So definitely not feasible when you can go down the street and buy a chicken nugget for probably 30 cents at any fast food restaurant. Based on that, we knew that something had to change and we decided to prioritize creating a new method of producing growth media that was more affordable, so we could drive down our own production costs.
MCWALTER: Could you tell us a little bit more about your technology?
ANDERSON-BARON: I guess a way you can think of it is like, it’s the nutrient broth that feeds the cells. It’s made up of common ingredients, like simple salts, sugars and amino acids. And growth factors. Growth factors are essentially, what is required to actually have different types of cell lines grow. And they’re also the most expensive component of it. When you see a picture of a petri dish with a piece of lab grown meat in it, it’s that liquid that’s in the petri dish that’s what we’re talking about.
MCWALTER: I believe one of your two cofounders is your husband; what are the pros and cons of starting a company with your husband?
ANDERSON-BARON: It’s been great, honestly. I mean, we get that question a lot. We’ve always worked on projects together, it is always been a kind of joke that maybe we’re a little bit too into the same thing sometimes. I think such a big part of making a startup work is being able to communicate well with your founders. And I think that there’s nobody that I can communicate better with than my husband and so it’s been really nothing but positive.
MCWALTER: In terms of the supply chain are there any elements of cellular meat that require it to be produced in a specific place?
ANDERSON-BARON: That’s really the beauty of it, ultimately, this product can be produced anywhere. I think one day, people will have a system in their very own kitchens, some sort of “mini meat maker”. I don’t think that’s really that far fetched. I think we’re going to get to a point where, there’s a whole spectrum of localized products like that similar to other industries, like beer brewing, for example. You have the big factories, and then you have your microbreweries, and then you have your at-home brewing kits. I think we’re gonna see a very similar thing with this industry down the road, where there are all different types of scale, and, you know, different kinds of end products.
MCWALTER: What so far has been the reaction of the large meat producing companies, the agribusinesses, the meat packers, etc? Have some of them started placing bets in this space and buying up companies, or have they generally been blocking development/lobbying against cellular meat?
ANDERSON-BARON: I think it’s been a bit mixed within the traditional ag industry overall. But some of the biggest meat producers in the world, Tyson and Cargill have both invested in this space. The big ones know that this is coming, and it’s kind of time to get on board otherwise, you might find yourself in a position down the road, where you have some competition.
We’re seeing that with plant-based solutions now. There’s a lot of parallels with that industry, in terms of popularity its a couple of years ahead of where we’re at with cellular agriculture. But I’m sure it would be hard to find a major meat producer that’s not also in the plant-based space at this point. So yeah, I definitely see them continuing to kind of diversify into these alternative methods of protein production.
MCWALTER: When will we see cellular meat products on supermarket shelves?
ANDERSON-BARON: It’s funny because I’m in the industry, but I still don’t fully understand why nobody has released a product yet commercially. Because the technology is absolutely there, the taste is there, the texture is there. We’ve seen the different prototypes, and there’s been tastings and all that so yeah, I’m honestly not sure what the holdup is at the moment. Granted it would be released at a higher price point but, whoever gets there first, with definitely have bragging rights.
MCWALTER: In terms of taste how close can the taste get to the real thing? I grew up in the west of Ireland and the flavor of the typical steak in the west of Ireland is quite different from even very nice steakhouses in the United States? Could those sorts of differences come out in cellular meat?
ANDERSON-BARON: Yeah, again, I mean, that comes down to really the different products that every company is working on. But I think that’s kind of the beauty of it as you can take a particular cell line from a specific breed of cattle and create meat like that. There are even some companies working on more exotic animals like kangaroo. Ultimately, the industry is trying to get to, is something that tastes exactly like every existing agricultural product. So if you’re trying to create, you know, a particular type of steak from a particular region of the world, that’s, that’s essentially what they would be working towards, and they definitely have the ability to tailor that flavor profile through, different methods of production. I’ve even heard ideas around creating brand new meat products, like why be limited to things that already exist as domesticated animals in the world? How do we know that that’s really the best meat as far as taste goes? And you know, if we’re able to try kind of anything by growing it in a laboratory, then why not maybe expand our pellets a little? There is woolly mammoth DNA available so who knows?
MCWALTER: What are the kind of goals and milestones you’re looking to reach over the next year?
ANDERSON-BARON: So we just finished fundraising our seed round. So now we’re ready to get back to work. And ultimately, our big goal is to become the premium supplier of growth media to this entire industry, getting to a point where we can provide hundreds of thousands of liters of growth media, every month. We’ve brought on 40 scientists to our team, we’ve fully validated our technology and made a lot of progress around optimizing our products over the last 12 months. So we now have some contracts in place for this coming year. And so we’re going to be scaling up our production to meet our customer’s scale, and then just continuing to meet demand. And we’re just constantly working to improve our system and optimize our technology.
MCWALTER: You attended the most recent and first remote YCombinator cohort, what was it like?
ANDERSON-BARON: It was definitely an interesting experience, spent a lot of time on zoom. But it was really great. I think they did such a great job of completely shifting to remote operations in such a short period of time. And as much as we feel a bit like we missed out on the experience of getting to live there, it actually probably worked out much better for us, because we have our lab here and our operations and science team. And I’m not sure how we would have been able to leave it and continue to make major progress. So it actually really worked out well for us, we likely wouldn’t have been able to do it if it hadn’t been remote.
We were successful in meeting our milestones, and then our fundraising coming out of Y Combinator really could not have gone better. It was a very smooth, quick process.
MCWALTER: Interesting because I think YC presents itself open to any of the great potential startups in the world. But it sounds very dependent on software versus hard tech or biotech. Because how are you going to do biotech in a room in San Francisco without a lab or your industrial press or whatever it may be?
ANDERSON-BARON: For sure. And I know biotech companies have successfully moved there in the past and had great experiences. But yeah, it just worked for us. Matt and I also have a one year old so logistically it would have been very challenging to manage all of that plus a small child in a new city. So yeah, so no complaints really about how it was run, it was a really amazing experience.
MCWALTER: What’s your biggest surprise about YC?
ANDERSON-BARON: That they let us in! I mean, I think we have a great technology. But we applied late, and it was our first time and like I was just so astounded that we got in which I think really speaks to our technology. And it was very validating, to hear others also think that our technology was as great as we think it is. For me, it was an interesting experience because I have a pretty unconventional background for someone in a biotech company or in a startup, probably period, but particularly a biotech company. And so I was hearing a lot of the kind of tech lingo at times, and I felt like “they’re gonna kick me out for saying this!”, but I didn’t know what SaaS meant, the first day, I had to Google it. So I just learned so much.
Learned so much speaking with Connie Bowen, Director of Innovation and Investment at AgLaunch a network that connects farmers and startups as well as the cohost of the End of Agriculture podcast. We discussed the importance of diversity in both farmer networks and startup teams, the different types of investment opportunities in agriculture, why irish butter doesn’t get the sustainability credit it deserves, the opportunities for sustainability minded farmers to go direct to consumer, why labor issues in agriculture is such a major and under discussed aspect of agtech and more!
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: Can you tell us a little bit about Aglaunch?
BOWEN: Aglaunch, at its core, is a farmer network based in Memphis, Tennessee, with a focus on the Delta region. At its core Aglaunch connects technology startups with farmers. We are also quite intentional about developing an inclusive pipeline for the future of agriculture and agriculture technology by being very intentional about education and historically marginalized communities and ensuring that the future of agriculture is as bright as it can be.
MCWALTER: What is the typical profile of those farmers who opt into the network?
BOWEN: It is very intentionally diverse. We’ve got your traditional row farmers including soybeans and cotton. And then we’ve actually some really interesting non now active network members is one acre, he produces all year round and hoop houses, he’s gone direct to consumer and COVID. He’s this he’s got like six or 700% sales, he had to convert everything away from restaurants. And so we kind of divide our farmer networks up right now about a bit geographically. So we’ve got what we call our world delta network that’s largely based in Tennessee, but it does blur into surrounding states. We’ve got our urban network in Memphis, which is in its earlier stages, but that’s focused more on urban farmers, we’re seeing really especially crowd, you’re seeing hydroponics, some kind of funky stuff, it’s really focused on community inclusion, and food access, then you’ve got Iowa network tends to be more traditional water, a lot of soy, and corn in Iowa. And then our Oregon network we’re particularly excited about because there’s, it’s focused really in the William Valley, which is a super diverse crap region. So we get a lot of specially crap farmers in there. But we do I should mention, we do have specially crowd farmers. So we do have livestock producers in our Delta region.
MCWALTER: Are there margins in ag to support VC type investments?
BOWEN: There are definitely VC investable opportunities in ag. Though VC is appropriate for a lot of companies, but maybe not for others. Let’s say you have a specialty Apple harvester, right? What’s the best case exit for that company, it’s never going to be a unicorn. And so you so there are different ways you can approach those opportunities. I’m a big fan of impact investment in a lot of cases also.
MCWALTER: In terms of the startups that are most successful, do they typically have founders coming from agricultural backgrounds?
BOWEN: I’m a big believer in diverse teams across the board, I like to see someone from an agricultural background. And really, I think we don’t see enough people from a kind of a consumer background in agriculture, because I think that’s a big part of the missing kind of linkage. The thing that matters most across the board for startups is coachability, and willingness and desire to work with the people who you need to work with to grow your company. And that in a lot of cases in agriculture is farmers. Not in all cases, but in many cases that might mean getting colocated? I mean, obviously, we’re in COVID times so everybody’s remote, but maybe more people should be moving off the coasts and getting into the heartland more and try to walk the land a bit?
MCWALTER: How did you end up working in agriculture?
BOWEN: If you told me five years ago that I would be living in Missouri, I would laugh at you. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, with New York City being like THE city. I then did this entrepreneurial fellowship program called Venture for America which is how I ended up in St. Louis. And through that, I learned a lot about things like urban agriculture and our family also has a corn and soy farm in Iowa. And so I had that exposure, but definitely wasn’t living it. For people working on agriculture, it is helpful. Because the reality is, you do need to have some boots on the ground experience or at least a very high degree of empathy on your team. And I do think that can come in the form of kind of an advisory member or good listening can kind of be a good stand-in for that.
MCWALTER: With the 365 day nature of farming, how best can entrepreneurs work with busy farmers in order to deploy the technology or idea?
BOWEN: I guess the first thing I would say is farmers are a very, very broad category. A crop farmer is far different than a Midwest massive acreage row crop. So you need to segment your market and understand who you really need to be talking with and I think that it can be very difficult to do. It’s a relationship building game and I have seen a couple of startups that I really admire essentially build their own farmer networks. And they’ve done that by very deliberately talking to people who they’ve been able to get warm introductions to.
MCWALTER: Agriculture is full of large entrenched enterprises, can these companies be disrupted?
BOWEN: Great question. I think that it’s possible, otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Part of our thesis with Aglaunch is that it’s not possible for that kind of disruption to happen independently so you do need to have a support network. If you look at Monsanto/Bayer they have a grower testing network, and resources that enable them to focus on different innovation areas and capturing different market areas. So startups do need that as a company and it’s very difficult to assemble them all on your own
MCWALTER: What are the opportunities for farmers looking to decarbonize?
BOWEN: Take the example of Irish dairy which is really one of the most sustainable ways to create a product like butter, and who doesn’t love Irish butter! It also tends to be pastured which is a carbon sink opportunity. However, the way that the EPA accounts for ag emissions means that we are not calculating all the benefits. Then when you look at policy fixes that are being implemented, the only solution is to cull cattle and that’s not a good solution for agriculture or the Irish economy either, which has a pretty strong reliance on agriculture. And it’s not a good solution for global sustainability because when you put Irish butter next to most other production systems it is a lot more sustainably produced. And so that’s a problem with our carbon accounting methodology.
I do think there’s an opportunity for farmers to directly monetize, by bypassing conventional aggregators and purchasers and forming their own different types of models which can feed into a greater focus on sustainability. I hesitate to use the word coop because coops aren’t always serving farmers in the way that you would think that they would. But in this world where we’re seeing an increase in direct to consumer sales and a renewed focus on traceability alongside cheapening of traceability technology it will create opportunities for farmers who want to market directly, bearing in mind that marketing directly is a heck of a lot of work.
MCWALTER: So if there still needs to be if not a coop than some other form aggregation, maybe the “Low Carbon Farmers of America”, whatever it is, and they have some form of verification step allowing their milk to be easily used by direct to consumer brands?
BOWEN: My belief is that people don’t actually want to know more about their food and the food system. Most people, I mean, you and I might, but that makes us exceptional, not normal. Most people aren’t going to learn everythin#bbffd7g about their food system. Most people wouldn’t understand why I would want that hazelnut orchard to be organic, and another crop to be conventional but both for sustainability reasons? Like, that’s just no one is going to get that. And so I believe that it’s going to come down to branding and trusted brands and so at one level the big existing brands have an opportunity. But on another level, they’re going to have to acquire smaller brands, because they’ve got something of a tainted brand already.
And that’s where I think that there’s an interesting opportunity that’s tech-driven. And we’re actually working on a project with this as well that links special attributes like some sustainability factor into a smart contract system with an institutional purchaser who can actually start to nudge the supply chain in specific directions. In theory but it’s complicated. But it does enable diverse diversification practices without adding another label as those labels like organic and fairtrade etc get really overwhelming.
MCWALTER: If you think about a 10 to 15 year time horizon, what are the things you’re looking at that might have the largest impact on decarbonization?
BOWEN: Soil is the cheap way to draw down carbon and I am a huge fan of silvopastoral systems. And then I also think, and this doesn’t get talked about enough, in my opinion, one of the major challenges to actually adopting regenerative practices is that weeding is not that much fun. It’s very expensive and requires a lot of labor. And so then you start to talk about robotics and farm equipment that requires some type of investment. And you can’t talk about that without talking about labor crews. Labor policy is how people are treated, how people are paid. How do we even source the labor? Because there are massive labor shortages in this country. Then step back and say, Hmm, it’s kind of a problem that in an economy where there are high unemployment rates, we still cannot source people to do this work. What does that say about this work? And so I think one thing that doesn’t get talked about quite enough in the regenerative agriculture conversation is the role of contract labor. And this kind of historically biased system interacts with technology adoption in key ways that need to be addressed and isn’t talked about.
MCWALTER: How has COVID-19 affected your views on agriculture?
BOWEN: I’ll say about the labor situation, generally, I think that we don’t give enough attention to essential workers in the agri-food logistics system. And that’s just really terrible. But what it has done is it’s really brought agriculture more to the forefront, it’s on the front pages a lot more often, people are a little bit more nervous about where their food is coming from. And I think that that’s good and it creates some opportunities that we have we can build upon. I don’t know that awareness will be a lasting change but I do think that we have accelerated adoption of direct to consumer which creates some interesting opportunities in terms of connecting farmers to consumers throughout the supply chain.
MCWALTER: What is your podcast, the End of Agriculture about?
BOWEN: My friend Sarah Maka, who’s a freelance journalist and I accidentally started a podcast where we examine what is behind key elements of agri-food systems. We don’t actually want the end of agriculture to happen, but we think it’s worth exploring the issues so that we can think thoughtfully about the future.
Really interesting conversation with Manik Suri, CEO of CoInspect who build checklist and refrigeration monitoring solutions for food safety and sustainability. We discussed the importance of pivoting to find product market fit, how insight from their software product pointed them to a massive opportunity which they are meeting with their new product Therma, why first generation IoT cooling measurement tools failed, why making “clean cooling” cool is key to scaling decarbonization, where the biggest opportunities to reduce loss are in food supply chains, views on the Checklist Manifesto and more!
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: What is CoInspect’s founding story?
SURI: The original idea came out of work I was doing as a young lawyer. I went to Harvard law school and for a brief stint in my life I thought I might be a lawyer. In my last year of law school, I was going around Boston various inspectors that were using paper and pen and clipboards and carrying around binders of legal code. They were trying to document health and safety issues around public and private infrastructure. As I was doing that work, my fellow law colleagues and myself realized it was super inefficient and ineffective.
It was very manual data collection and the data was ending up in filing cabinets. And if you wanted to see what kind of issues were coming up, what kinds of trends, is was really hard to get that information. That led me and my co founder, Aaron, to think about inspections more broadly. And we realized that every physical asset gets inspected. We thought there was an opportunity to bring mobile technology to bear on pen and paper workflows.
MCWALTER: You then started focusing on health and safety?
SURI: It’s funny, and in hindsight, it feels like a natural evolution. At the time, it felt like a massive pivot. Our first go to market was selling a mobile app for safety management to governments. Our first customer was New York State Department of Health. We literally sold a government contract as our first customer, and we signed up 15 counties across New York. They are still customers! We realized very quickly that selling to the government was not going to be an easy go to market for a number of reasons.
So we ended up positioning the tool as a compliance tool and that was our kind of first pivot from regtech to compliance tech. And initially, it was about all health and safety. But food safety emerged as a big problem organically and we started getting more and more chains to sign up. I think the timing was good. Mobile had just become cheap enough or affordable enough for a restaurant or supermarket chain to afford tablets in their stores. And the Food Safety Modernization Act in the US had just been enacted which put pressure on documentation and on the ability to audit logs. So there was a kind of regulatory tailwind. And I think the combination of those two factors were key. And then lastly, I would say the growth in social media and the growth in a kind of consumer awareness of food safety issues, has just made brands a lot more concerned. It used to be in the olden days, if you had a food safety problem, you could contain it. But in the last couple of years, if you have a food safety problem in one market, very quickly, it’s a global problem because a few people tweeting can spread rapidly. Those are all the factors that lead us into CoInspect’s first product.
MCWALTER: I believe you have a new product, Therma?
SURI: The development of Therma developed very naturally, though, at the time we didn’t realize it. In 2019, we were watching customers across thousands of locations using our CoInspect app to do daily safety checks in restaurants and supermarkets. And yet managers kept going in and checking various endpoints four to eight times a day on a mobile app. A lot of those endpoints and food safety had to do with temperature and humidity controls, making sure that the product was kept in the right temperature zone.
Now CoInspect as a mobile first tool is certainly better than pen and paper but it still requires a person to do the work. And as we were watching users engaging with the app last year, we realized there was a really interesting opportunity around a new type of automation, or IoT based sensor monitoring, that had not been possible.
The credit for that goes to our CTO Andrew Hager and our engineering team. Andrew had a background in hardware and software development and he’s always been a passionate IoT hobbyist. We saw a new type of IoT protocol emerged called long range radio or LoRa. LoRa lets you send data from inside dense insulation in a way that WiFi and Bluetooth don’t. WiFi and Bluetooth systems can’t send a signal from the inside of a freezer or fridge. So customers like McDonald’s and Domino’s had tried first generation IoT sensors but they couldn’t send a signal. And so the insight we had was that LoRa as a new protocol, could be used to get continuous monitoring out of the inside of these refrigerated spaces.
And that’s totally shifted the company in the past year as we built out Therma over the fall of 2019. Therma is a price disruptive, reliable 24/7 smart refrigeration monitoring tool. In essence its an alarm system for your refrigeration to give you insights and to ensure that all of your assets, all of your inventory are being protected and avoiding any spoilage or loss events.
But because of this new product, we’ve moved from not just food safety but into sustainability because refrigeration monitoring reduces food waste, energy waste, and refrigerant emissions. And food waste, energy, waste and refrigerants are three of the biggest drivers of warming. And this was all new to us. We were not climate activists or sustainability experts. And so the company has completely changed from being a safety focused to a sustainability focused startup in the process of building Therma.
MCWALTER: Often when startups add a second product it’s quite tough. What kind of validation internally did you do when deciding between doubling down on your core offering versus adding Therma?
SURI: It was a really tough call. Because we were a software company with 40 people but no hardware engineers. We’d never built hardware. Every friend of mine from Harvard from college and from grad school, and from just entrepreneurial life said hardware is hard. And knew one of the cofounders of Nest personally, and so it was really a difficult decision. But what was exciting was as we were looking at the product roadmap and doing customer discovery last summer, we kept going to our customer base of thousands of restaurants and retailers using CoInspect. So we had an instal base to talk to and every time we would position the idea of Therma and they would say “I would buy that yesterday”. And so at first we didn’t build hardware, rather we partnered with the two biggest OEM equipment manufacturers, and we built a software front end using OEM hardware.
We took that to our customer base, and within weeks they were seeing loss and spoilage events being avoided. This was a combination of noticing human error, power outage and equipment, malfunction in the compressors or wiring. They were literally catching all kinds of issues in their stores. And they realized they were having a lot more loss events than they actually thought at the corporate level which meant that the ROI driver for Therma was a lot more significant then we initially thought. We were estimating in our marketing materials 1-2 loss events a year but in practice, we were seeing more like two loss events a month. That’s what led us to join the BMW accelerator urbanX and build out our own hardware in Q4.
When we put that hardware in the market this year, we were putting it in the market at a fraction of the price of wired solutions. A wired solution would cost a business $3-$5,000 and you need a technician to come out and install it. So the only companies that have put wired solutions where the Walmarts and Costcos of the world and even they are only putting it in their big back of store refrigeration. Our hardware, I’m happy to say we’ve been able to build and we build it in America and at a fraction of the cost.
And so our pricing model is 10 bucks a month. No hardware costs whatsoever. That has gotten the attention of some of the biggest companies in the food, hospitality and restaurant space, because at 10 bucks a month, (and that’s base pricing), this becomes something that makes sense for a fast casual or a fast food quick serve chain. And so we’re getting interest from a whole segment of the cold chain that just never thought monitoring could make sense for them. And that’s the traction that got us excited. Also the data is really interesting. We have an opportunity to take continuous monitoring data of the cold supply chain and optimize how you manage these expensive assets. And that data is interesting to a lot of people, not just to the owner. It’s interesting to the equipment manufacturers. It’s interesting to insurance companies, it’s interesting to third party food safety firms. So we’re seeing an opportunity with this continuous monitoring data to start doing some interesting work with the ecosystem around the cold chain.
MCWALTER: Can Therma help large enterprises meet decarbonization pledges?
SURI: Absolutely, and its what we’re seeing. In order to win a corporate deal and this become a system wide standard, we think it has to be more than just a margin improvement or profitability tool. So we’re trying to build the case around both profitability and sustainability. This can be something that reduces energy costs and spoilage rates, and also is measurable in terms of metric tonne of co2 reduction. And so we’ve been partnering recently with several leading climate and sustainability organizations, which measures the social impact of venture backed startups. We’re also doing some work with the World Economic Forum and with McKinsey on a white paper on sustainability practice on measuring and saying with actual data and conviction, “hey, if you’re the CEO of a Starbucks, or if you’re the Chief Sustainability Officer of a Whole Foods, you should be taking this type of technology seriously”. Not just because it’s good for business, but also because you have ESG goals and sustainability goals to meet. So I think that is very much the future.
MCWALTER: There are interesting operational practices that seem obvious in hindsight, like the Checklist Manifesto in medicine; why wasn’t medicine using checklists for the last hundred years? Are there other kinds of easy to improve operational gaps at large companies?
SURI: You’d be surprised James at the number of low hanging operational fruits. The challenge, I think is how do you align business incentives and priorities with these low hanging fruits. So I know the Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Gawande taught my wife! And the reality is checklists have been around forever, but they’re still not implemented or accepted. Only a few high-reliability organizations like nuclear power plants or aviation use them. One of the reasons we see checklist adoption being slow is it’s not easy to measure the benefit of a checklist based protocol. And so when you asked a few minutes ago, why and how our second product has seen so much traction more quickly than CoInspect, is that Therma gives you immediate ROI. Within a week or two, you can see a loss event that you would have spent money on because you’re paying for that product out of your pocket. So Therma is a continuous monitoring tool that aligns with the business objective and profitability very clearly; a checklist pace tool doesn’t do that as easily.
MCWALTER: Are there other opportunities to improve the food supply chain?
SURI: I’ll just mention a few because I think the supply chain has huge areas for improvement. One area that’s really clear is there is a lack of consistency and visibility on how a product moves from production to consumption. Many if not most stakeholders are using pen and paper and so it’s really hard to get condition information from the farm to the fork.
And that kind of visibility matters to buyers and sellers. And there’s opportunity to create economic value for all of those with more consistent data collection, and more transparent data sharing. And we see that consistently. We see that often when we talk to different stakeholders, “if I could only see what my warehouse operators were doing with my product at a granular level, I would pay a premium for that”. Or “If I could see what our products were doing in real time I could avoid expensive visits to our 300 global suppliers”. There’s just a huge amount of inefficiency in how data is stored and shared.
And from a climate standpoint and a carbon neutral standpoint, that inefficiency often leads to behavior that is not in line with carbon neutrality. It leads to over chilling and to a ton of product loss.The Boston Consulting Group report that came out two years ago on food waste showed that about $50 billion of product gets thrown out because of storage and handling issues alone. That’s an insane amount of product that gets disposed of. And you know, these numbers matter not just because of the economic value, but also the emissions that are driven by this kind of overproduction and waste.
MCWALTER: Where does most waste in the supply chain happen?
SURI: So from a food waste or product loss standpoint, there are a few critical pain points where the majority of product loss happens. The academic research on the topic of food waste indicates the majority of waste seems to happen at a few segments specifically, one is a lot of product gets lost or wasted in the process of being moved from the production environment, to the first warehouse. That’s a combination of poor inventory management at the farm, or at the slaughterhouse. So there’s opportunity to provide better technology and better solutions around those use cases as that’s historically been a segment of the food industry that’s pretty tech lagging. They’re not early adopters, generally speaking, though they’re very big companies and very sophisticated about what they do. There’s another set of loss that often happens in the transportation moving product between one holding environment to another.
MCWALTER: Yeah, no, absolutely say the energy waste, both in terms of the, you know, the temperatures maintained weathers on the shop floor and the refrigerators themselves. You also have the choice of energy that you use, right, like the renewable versus not our picture, or any other elements that
SURI: We’re working with a couple of major warehousing companies with warehouses the size of multiple zip codes. They are using huge amounts of energy to keep products cold and frozen but because they don’t have a real time heat map or monitoring of the space, they’re ending up over cooling the entire space to ensure that the product stays within range for their customers. So to ensure they don’t lose product, they’re over cooling all that inventory. And so what we’re seeing is with Therma as a lightweight, easy to deploy price disruptive wireless sensor you can get a real time visualization of the heat inside the space and get really significant energy savings. And candidly, that’s one of the fastest growing business verticals for us as a company right now.
MCWALTER: Is there anything else I should have asked you about?
SURI: Why aren’t more people thinking about the global cold chain? I mean, I’m shocked, having worked at one of the largest hedge funds, and I worked in the Obama White House as a junior person on the economic policy team and we never spoken about it and I’m just amazed after talking to a number of climate experts recently, how few people are working on the global cold chain.
In our last all hands meeting, we ended the meeting by saying our goal is to make “clean cooling cool”. It’s pretty understandable why refrigeration and cooling is not top of mind for most people. So I think our mission is to make cooling cool again, or cool for the first time.