Kimbal Musk Is on a Mission

The entrepreneur talks about food politics, technology, and how entrepreneurs can reshape a $5 trillion-dollar industry.

Photo by Robert Leslie

Last week, SoFi sponsored the Near Future Summit, a conference dedicated to world positive solutions from inventors, investors, and entrepreneurs. SoFi invited several members of its Entrepreneur Program to participate in the conference and affect change through unexpected interactions and collaborations.

Entrepreneur Kimbal Musk is clear on this: he does not want to feed the world. “We already solved the problem of feeding the world in the 1960s, when we started serving cheeseburgers,” he tells a crowd of entrepreneurs and innovators gathered in La Jolla, CA last week for the Near Future Summit. “We now overproduce calories and have this massive problem of obesity and malnourishment. The problem isn’t food, it’s industrial food.” That system of production was created at the same time as cheeseburgers, he says, because it is very efficient and scales well. But it’s also been widely criticized for the danger it poses to public health through widespread use of antibiotics, and polluting the air, land and water with pesticides and huge amounts of animal waste.

Musk, like the other featured speakers, was sharing the ways his business is changing — or aims to change — the world. Musk’s older brother Elon is the serial entrepreneur with PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX to his name but Kimbal is an entrepreneur in his own right too, both an investor in his brother’s companies and cofounder of The Kitchen, a family of restaurants in Colorado and Chicago (and soon Memphis, TN.).

Food is the way Musk intends to make his positive mark on the world and it’s more than a fight against obesity — although obesity is certainly part of it. His ultimate goal is a kind of all-encompassing wellness, through what we grow, how we grow it, and what we eat. He’s already doing his part through a mini-empire of restaurants that includes The Kitchen, a high-end bistro; The Kitchen Upstairs, a cocktail lounge and The Kitchen Next Door, with a more affordable menu of burgers, sandwiches, and salads.

His ultimate goal is a kind of all-encompassing wellness.

“Do you feel it?” Musk asks the crowd. “That inexplicable feeling that something is going on, and you know it’s going to change the world. We felt it with the internet in the 90s and I’m here to tell you it’s happening again, with food.” Musk is capitalizing on shifting public opinion and behavior when it comes to food consumption, toward locally sourced, organic produce and meat. He is also using food as a means to enrich communities, physically, socially, and economically.

To that end, Musk says his Kitchen restaurants are helping local farmers and local communities. The Kitchen restaurants are the largest buyer of locally farmed product in Colorado. “Local farms aren’t big enough to supply Whole Foods or Chipotle (Musk is on the latter restaurant’s board). Those companies are just too big to buy from small, local farmers.” Twelve years ago when Musk first opened shop in Colorado, the market for locally farmed products was $4 million; today it’s $20 million. His restaurants employ 450 people. All of that contributes to the health of the community, he says.

Of course The Kitchen alone can’t solve the country’s health and environmental problems, and Musk believes the problem needs to be tackled in two ways, one a non-profit solution and the other for-profit. Musk’s non-profit efforts to change things, via The Kitchen Community, which Musk created in 2011, aims to educate the youngest consumers about healthy eating and healthy farming. The Kitchen Community builds modular learning gardens at elementary schools in cities nationwide, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis and soon, Pittsburgh. The gardens, which are about the size of a playground, are built in two days. There are now gardens at 270 schools impacting about 600 students per school. Teachers receiving training every two weeks that enables them to teach a math and science lesson in the garden, training for which they earn professional development credits. “It’s more like a community gathering than a training,” says Musk. “We designed it so it’s easy for the teachers and they get super excited about it.” As he does.

“We want kids to value real food and understanding that it isn’t just about feeding people, but about nourishing the body, the community and the planet.”

The for-profit solution is ambitious: revolutionizing farming through a new generation of technology created by entrepreneurs. For these would-be entrepreneurs there is no shortage of opportunity. Food and agribusiness is a $5 trillion industry, according to a report published by the consulting firm McKinsey last July. It represents 10 percent of global consumer spending and 40 percent of employment but is also responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That represents an enormous opportunity for entrepreneurs to develop technology that will make farming more efficient, cleaner, less resource-intensive, and less expensive.

“Everyone has to eat,” says Musk, “so the opportunities in the space are incredible.” And there have been a spate of Silicon Valley startups recently in the agriculture tech space, like Granular, whose software enables farmers to access detailed data about their farm’s operations in real time. That information will enable farmer’s to make better decisions, so they can use less water and fertilizer and operate more efficiently. In July the company raised almost $20 million in venture capital.

Of all the ways to apply technology to the food industry — and there are plenty — Musk believes indoor farming offers the most promise of all. He has toured successful indoor farms in Holland and, he says, “tasted strawberries there that were better than any farm strawberry we’ve ever had in the U.S. They use technology to produce tasty, real food locally, at scale.”

Sponsored by SoFi, The Future of Money is a series of stories that explores a world in which banks no longer control our finances. SoFi helps people reach their money, career, and relationship goals. Their Entrepreneur Program provides members with the resources, support, and opportunity to turn their business ideas into reality.

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