Engineering the Food of the Future with Robyn Metcalfe, Founder of Food+City

Robyn Metcalfe, founder of Food+City at UT Austin, photo by John Davidson.

By LAURA LOREK
Publisher of Silicon Hills News

Engineers are becoming the new farmers, according to Robyn Metcalfe, founder, and director of Food+City at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a movement Metcalfe labels “Fab to Table,” she sees a food revolution going on right now that will lead to more personalized food products on the family dinner table.

“Who is going to be farming and creating our food in the next generation?” Metcalfe asked during a discussion on the Ideas to Invoices podcast.

In the future, people will look to engineers at Carnegie Mellon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Davis, to provide the new ways to grow, manufacture and supply food, Metcalfe said.

But people are still an integral part of the process, Metcalfe said. The food system will include both people and machines working together to produce food and distribute it to the growing cities, she said.

These changes are going to dramatically affect how people get fed, Metcalfe said. Even things like a shift in the way people consume protein will affect the food network, she said.

“It’s really the protein revolution that is a part of this conversation,” Metcalfe said. “And crickets, cricket protein, bug protein is a part of that. And it will affect the supply chain if you have more protein coming from plants, crickets and other things, other than meat, there is a whole shift in the way food is produced, how it finds its way to your plate. And a big re-engineering of the supply chain as those protein sources change.”

Currently, Metcalfe is writing a book about the food supply chain for MIT that will be published in the next year.

In Austin, Metcalfe launched Food+City, formerly known as the Food Lab, four years ago, to bring attention to how people in cities are fed around the world.
“It’s really a two-part mission: telling stories and inspiring entrepreneurs to launch startups to solve problems,” Metcalfe said.

Every year, Food+City hosts the Food Challenge Prize, which focuses on the food supply chain. The prize awards technology that solves problems such as tracking and tracing food, cold storage, robots, drones, driverless cars and other ways that change how food gets distributed.

In 2018, Food+City will host the Food Challenge Prize, a pitch event featuring finalists, at South by Southwest.

As a food historian, Metcalfe looks at past lessons to spur innovation in the future of the food industry. She is also a visiting research scholar and lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin.

Metcalfe has written for and produced Sunset Magazine, authored two non-fiction books, served as a visiting research scholar at Boston University and founded a non-profit educational farm in Maine. She has a Cordon Bleu certificate for culinary skills, a Cheese Certificate and is an ultra-marathoner.

Metcalfe’s varied background has prepared her to run Food+City, which just published the third edition of its print magazine, which blends food, technology, art and innovation into beautifully written, photographed and laid out stories.

“We love it. We love the feel of paper. We do believe in the blend of art and science, digital and art. And we think this is a great expression of that. There are drawings in it. There’s photography in it. There’s a lot of people and humanity in it. And I think this leads to where we think our food economy is going. It will be an elegant creation that consists of both digital and analog, people and machines hopefully in the future,” Metcalfe said.

In 2015, Metcalfe wrote an article in TechCrunch titled “The coming food bubble” about all the investment flowing into food startups, primarily in Silicon Valley.

“The bubble is hovering,” Metcalfe said. “I think it has lost some air. It hasn’t exploded.”

It has resulted in the deflation of a lot of food startup valuations, Metcalfe said It was fueled initially by the fear of missing out, she said.

“I think we are experiencing sort of that pause, and reconsideration and more learning and less sort of just panicked participation in the market,” Metcalfe said.

Metcalfe is also seeing this trend in the latest submission pool of startups to the Food+City Challenge prize. She is seeing more intelligent startups and those further down the pipeline of solving problems.

Last month, Metcalfe completed a 150-mile ultra-marathon, seven-day desert trail run in Patagonia, Argentina. She had to carry all her food, water and other supplies with her during her trek. It is the sixth ultra-marathon she has completed since 2006.

“I just feel you learn a lot. You always learn you are capable of lot more than you think you are,” Metcalfe said.

For more information about food innovation, listen to the entire Ideas to Invoices podcast with Metcalfe and please subscribe, rate and review the podcast on iTunes.

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