Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Robyn Metcalfe, courtesy photo.

Robyn Metcalfe, courtesy photo.

In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte and the French government offered a cash prize to anyone who could come up with a way to preserve food for his troops on the battlefield.

Nicholas Appert won the reward in 1810 by devising a way to use heat to preserve food in glass jars sealed with wax.

Robyn Metcalfe, a food historian, recalled that example as a successful use of a cash prize to encourage innovation in the food industry.

“History is a way to create context for the future,” Metcalfe said.

Now she is hoping to spur food and tech innovators to come up with the next big ideas by offering $50,000 in cash prizes in the Food+City Challenge Prize. It’s an early stage business startup competition, which first kicked off last year as the Food Challenge Prize. The competition is open to anyone in the world with submissions starting Sept. 1 and running through Oct. 15th. The prizes will be awarded on Feb. 6th during a showcase day at UT featuring the 20 finalists pitching their startups.

Ten Acre Organics won the first competition with a grand prize of $10,000. It is building a 10-acre farm in Austin based on aquaponics, in which fish and vegetables are grown together to create zero waste.

Metcalfe serves as director of Food+City, a nonprofit organization that evolved out of the Food Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, which she created. Since launching in the fall of 2011, the Food Lab has helped to create a food study certificate at UT. It has also brought together different groups in Austin, UT and Texas to focus on innovation in the food industry including its partnership with Texas A&M University.

Metcalfe has also garnered attention worldwide for penning an article for TechCrunch, which highlighted what she identified as a bubble in the booming food technology industry.

The bubble is still floating but it has lost some air and has seen some fallout already, Metcalfe said. Most notably, Farmstr, Chefler, Chef Day, Pop-Up Pantry and Fresh Dish have all failed, according to a recent Forbes article. And the food tech startup, Hampton Creek in San Francisco, which has raised $120 million in venture capital, is facing some struggles, according to a Business Insider article.

Despite some of the failures, Metcalfe says the interest in food startups is continuing.

“There are a lot of people who are interested in food and technology and who want to do good things for the world,” Metcalfe said

Insects as an alternative protein source have received a lot of attention as startups launch to grow bugs for consumption. In fact, a few cricket-based products pitched as finalists at the last food challenge.

“The tough challenge is to convince people to overcome their cultural barriers,” Metcalfe said. “That’s a tough mountain to climb.”

And alternative food sources like Soylent, a meal replacement drink, have also garnered a lot of attention.

But Metcalfe sees some of the biggest innovations coming from biologics, precision agriculture, robotics, genomics, drones and GPS monitoring. Products that change and challenge the food system, Metcalfe said.

Could Austin be the next hotbed for food business innovations? That’s a question Metcalfe is pondering. She is participating in a panel on Sept. 22 at the McCombs Business School with alumni groups from Rice, Harvard, UT and Boston University to discuss Austin’s food industry.

“Is there something unique about our food entrepreneurs and culture in Austin?” Metcalfe said. “We’re entertaining that conversation on a large scale.”

The event will feature startups showcasing their product samples, networking and a panel of industry experts. Topics will include venture capital, startups, urban design and government organization.

In the future, Food+City could launch an incubator for food tech startups like those in Boston and San Francisco, Metcalfe said.

And to get insights on the food and technology innovations of the future, Metcalfe draws from a deep and rich historical perspective.

“We are building on the shoulders of those who came before,” she said.