Agriculture is a vast complex system . It’s cows, plows and sows. Sure. But it’s also everything that goes on between farm and fork. A chaotic mix of every discipline imagine-able.
Only 1% of the companies in this Y Combinator batch are considered to be in ‘agriculture’. Loads of these startups not labeled as agriculture are going to make waves in how food happens. So I’m going to take a broader view.
So sip your coffee and use your imagination. We have some important things to build if we are going to feed the planet. Lets check out some new companies that might *actually* be making the world a better place.
C16 Biosciences: Brews Palm Oil like beer
So back in the day it used to take 4,000 pounds of pig pancreas to make 8 oz. of insulin to treat diabetes. Talk about hard work. But then in the late 70’s through no small feat of engineering insulin started to be made synthetically via yeast. A breakthrough of science really. What C16 Biosciences is doing is very similar except they use their engineering chops to create palm oil without plants. They brew it like beer instead. This could be huge seeing that the production of palm oil has led to large side effects including deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Palm oil is used in almost everything you can think of from food and makeup to animal feed. C16 says that it can also make palm oil 20% cheaper than tradition methods. The only thing becoming endangered now due to palm oil production may be palm oil farmers. If you are a palm oil farmer it might be a good time to diversify.
Synvivia: Kill switch for synthetic biology.
When dreaming of the future people often fall into two camps. Utopia, or Dystopia. Analogies vary but my go to’s are that we’ll either be treated like the family cat by omnipotent AI or we are heading straight for terminator territory, CRISPR enhanced Schwarzenegger included.
The founders of Synvivia obviously have been having nightmares about both scenarios and have come up with an elegant solution. Creation of a biological ‘kill switch’ where new engineered organisms can be controlled by the removal of small molecules from their environment. Effectively preventing containment problems that could occur as a side effect of unleashing these new organisms into the wild. Building confidence that we have ways of preventing the spread of unwanted synthetic biology into the wild is paramount to build social trust and allow the proliferation of genetic engineering technology. It just requires guard rails. Farmers always want better tools and new technology. This technology will do way more than just help farmers though. It might even put many aspects of traditional farming under pressure.
Let us just hope they build a good switch. Nature tends to find a way.
Cytera CellWorks: Cellular meat automation
Remember pink slime? I sure miss when that was what was considered controversial news in America. Anyways.. this is not that. Clean meat aka lab grown meat or whatever you choose to call it is coming. In droves. The people making cellular meat products however don’t need an extra hand herding cattle. They need help automating their growing process instead. Farmers are using robots to milk cows. Cytera is building robotics to grow cows, or turkey, or really whatever crazy new meat we can imagine going forward.
The amount of meat consumed on the planet is huge. The market for alternatives to traditional meat is only going to grow. Blame hipsters if you must, but even if consumers are wary of science based modern farm practices they seem to have an appetite for any and all alternatives including “clean meat”. As prices come down it could become a wild ride of competition between in real life animals raised on the farm and those grown in the lab. The farmers may have the home court advantage but the rate of innovation in clean meat could easily outstrip that of animal agriculture. Labs have a fully controlled environment and faster iteration cycles. You can only raise a cow so fast.
Maybe “living animals” ends up being the last big niche. Maybe cellular sausage is awesome sauce. Time will tell.
Spate: Predictive analytics for CPG
Soooo.. the supply chain wasn’t really built to cater to the whims of a gaggle of internet connected omnivores. It was built to make huge amounts of standardized, cheap and safe food. Not avocado toast. Doing this well is part of what grew America to what it is today. It took us centuries to build up our infrastructure and organizations to do this really well. A side effect is, unfortunately, we didn’t build the most nimble system. Changing farming practices rapidly to match consumer trends wasn’t a huge design requirement until recently.
Things have changed. The pace of innovation in business is faster than ever. Consumers can flock to new trends en masse with the power at their fingertips. Spate is making predicting the future of trends for food, among other things, faster and more accurate than ever before. You can beat your competition to the next hot product. Farmers can change productions practices the season before rather than 5 years later to try and better capture the wave of new trends and actually maybe make some margins for once. So even if we are driving a big old ship of a supply chain, we now have Google Maps making sure we know their is a crash up ahead before we get stuck in traffic, or quinoa, or whatever else is coming up down the road.
Dinesafe: Crowdsourcing food poisoning analytics
So this one time I ate street meat in Colombia. It was excellent! ..until it wasn't. It turns out you don’t event need a license to cook food on a wagon in that specific alley. Who’d a thunk it!? Now, I highly suggest you experiment with food in foreign lands but it does come with more risks. The source of the meat? Unknown. Refrigeration. None. Basic sanitary practices? Probably less than your body is used too.
We are used to absolute top quality food safety in the U.S. From farm to fork we have this system down. But we are still fallible humans after all. As customers demand food to be more local, sans preservatives, not be frozen, etc, we lose all the safety benefits those practices where designed to provide. It puts a lot of risk back on the table and in the hands of restaurants especially. Dinesafe creates real time alerts and analytics about food-borne illnesses so companies can act fast to resolve problems and protect their brands.
So the next time you’re at Chipotle and something just doesn’t seem quite right, you can head over to iwaspoisoned.com, a site created by Dinesafe, and report your maladies so the people still waiting in line can benefit from your misfortune in realtime.
I could write for days about all the ways the other companies will make an even bigger dent in agriculture than these more obvious contenders. It’s best just to remember that big ideas usually form around foundational technologies. Tech that raises all boats. It is very possible that the YC companies providing transportation logistics and stable cryptocurrencies could create more change then any of these companies combined by creating the infrastructure and stability needed to foster self sustaining agriculture economies in places like Africa.
Now wouldn’t that be something.