Food Disruption Is Coming

Joseph Bien-Kahn, An Algorithm Is Coming for Your Food, The Ringer, November 14, 2017

Plant based protein

NotCo’s pitch is a grand one: to completely disrupt the factory-farm food system. The company argues that its proprietary machine-learning algorithm can efficiently sort through a complicated web of consumer food needs (nutrition and sustainability, but also mouthfeel, flavor, color, etc.), allowing NotCo to bring successful, delicious vegan alternatives to stores and upend animal-based markets in the process.

For the IndieBio team, the fact that the startup’s first product was already on the market proved that NotCo could deliver. But the machine-learning algorithm is what really has Gupta and Bethencourt excited.

Through the WI lens

It’s important to keep an eye on to what extent tech might disrupt food. A few months ago, Eric Schmidt (the chairman of Alphabet – Google’s parent company) dubbed the plant-based meat industry the no. 1 trend in tech. Today, the biggest players in the food tech scene are funded by some of the most prominent private investors in the world (like Eric Schmidt or Bill Gates) who understand that the nutritional and environmental benefits of meat and dairy replacements make the disruptive companies especially attractive to investors. To put things into perspective: China alone will import 1 million tons of beef in 2018.

This article describes how one start-up using machine-learning algorithms to replace animal proteins with vegan alternatives became a vegan-mayo company once valued at $1.1 billion. Machine learning in food is particularly challenging because of the subjectivity of taste, so it’s too early to tell how these ventures will evolve and how profitable they’ll ultimately be.  Some people worry that the food tech industry is racing forward, fueled by venture capital, a lot of hype, and “without much regard for any consequences”.

There is no doubt, however, that the big incumbents (the Nestlés of this world) are at risk of being disrupted. They are not alone:  the underlying idea of using a machine-learning algorithm to more efficiently account for a wide array of consumer desires can be used for different industries, skincare companies for example.

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“Employment is necessary to fulfil our most basic human needs such as food and shelter. Any significant increase in long-term unemployment will spell a retrograde step for human wellbeing like no other.”

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