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New food innovations are popping up everywhere – from food grown in shipping containers in Nigeria’s capital, to sustainable supply chain solutions like insect-based animal feed, to a grocery store model that increases low-cost food access while reducing waste. Despite lagging investment in food tech, which represents just one tenth of health tech investments since 2010, intrepid entrepreneurs are scaling bold new ventures that are redefining sustainable business in the food sector.
What might it take to enable more sustainable companies to transform our agriculture value chains and restock our grocery shelves? Several inspiring efforts are underway to support such entrepreneurs, including Unreasonable Impact, an initiative created with Barclays to propel those leading high-growth, innovative companies. I chatted with Daniel Epstein, Unreasonable Impact’s CEO, about the pathbreaking food ventures he supports and what their inspiring journeys can tell us about food systems transformation.
Lorin Fries: Why do you refer to yourself as “unreasonable”?
Daniel Epstein: There’s a quote by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in adapting the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Obviously, we add “unreasonable woman”. If all progress depends on unreasonable people, we need to fortify entrepreneurs who look at the status quo and refuse to accept it, who read the headlines in the news and see opportunities and solutions where others see market failures and problems. We have a healthy impatience, and we believe such entrepreneurs are positioned to define progress in our time.
Fries: What is Unreasonable Impact?
Epstein: We work with entrepreneurs driving growth equity companies positioned to create at least 500 jobs in the next five years. Our global network of 92 companies has raised over $1.5 billion in revenue, impacting over 100 million lives. We hand-pick the entrepreneurs we work with; they cannot apply to be a part of the fellowship. This lets us choose the most effective solutions in the green economy and give them rocket fuel. Once you’re in the fellowship, we want to give you an unfair advantage for life. The initiative is co-created with Barclays – not just sponsored by them, but integrated into their commercial and investment activities. The partnership is based on a shared belief that these companies are the future of business.
Fries: Could you give us examples of the ventures you support?
Epstein: Aerofarms is operating the largest vertical farm on the planet, in New Jersey. As compared to standard agriculture, their hydroponic farming approach is 390 times more efficient – using just one acre for what would normally take 390 acres to produce, while using 95 percent less water. They have over 100 employees, most of whom are data scientists collecting information on the plant’s health, vitality, taste, flavor and texture. They can tweak elements like the amount of carbon dioxide they feed it, or the cycles of frequency of water they provide, all in a controlled environment in a densely urban area. They’re a phenomenal company.
Memphis Meats has the ability to solve one of the greatest challenges of our time: protein production. They’re creating a clean meat revolution — real meat using stem cells from very healthy animals, but produced without the need to slaughter them. Each year we kill 70 billion animals for human consumption, and animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, after fossil fuels. Memphis Meat’s approach is more than 99 percent more efficient on land use and water consumption, and it’s 100 percent clean, with no use of antibiotics. It’s no wonder that investors like Richard Branson and Bill Gates and Tyson Foods are interested; it’s the future of meat production.
Terramera is looking specifically at chemical pesticides. Right now, we mostly use neurotoxins — incredibly lethal chemicals that were actually developed out of the Vietnam War. They have effects not only on the food that we eat but the water we drink, ocean vitality, and the health of soil. Terramera has replaced conventional chemical pesticides with a high-performance, plant-based product. You can drink it, it’s entirely harmless to us, and it acts like a probiotic, so it actually strengthens plants. Their last round of financing was 17 times over-subscribed.
Fries: Could you speak to some of the trends you see around ethical investing?
Epstein: Priorities are evolving so quickly, even from a couple of years ago. Reality is catching up to the dream. There had been a dichotomy in our collective ethos of impact: make more money on the one side, then do good with that money in ways that were not business-related. Now, people say that you can do well by doing good. Our belief is that, actually, you can do better than everybody else by maximizing the amount of good that you do. We choose to work with entrepreneurs who are solving the world’s most meaningful problem sets, and we believe the market will appreciate the delta created, and these will be more valuable companies because of it.
Fries: What does the world need, more broadly, to spur entrepreneurship and investment for businesses with social impact?
Epstein: I’m a proud Canadian, and a fan of the hockey player Wayne Gretzky. He is famous for saying that a good hockey player skates to where the puck is, but a great hockey player skates to where the puck is going to be. I would say the same is true of a mediocre investor or a great one.
The entrepreneurs we work with are manufacturing a sustainable economy framed around abundance. There’s no dearth of good ideas and no lack of capital, but there is a shortage of courage in the world — people willing to risk everything to go out there and solve these problems. We see the patterns, and we know where the puck is going to be. We just need to get there as fast as possible.
This interview is part of a series on how technology and innovation are transforming food and ecological systems – and how to get it right for people and planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
December 16, 2018 at 04:24PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs