“Almost no one understood what ‘Food Tech’ meant even three or four years ago,” says Amir Zaidman, VP of Business Development at “The Kitchen” a Food Tech incubator which is a joint venture of the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) and Strauss Group. “They’ve only recently started relating to Food Tech as an independent industry.” Zaidman is also the founder and manager of an Israeli Food Tech Group on LinkedIn.
“Food Tech includes any technology that helps the food industry or food consumers by solving a problem or adding value,” Zaidman explains. “It can directly involve the food and raw materials, or on the other hand, it can deal with manufacturing, logistics, and management at food and beverage companies. Everything related to the quality and safety of food, including smart packaging and so on, also belongs to the world of Food Tech.
“Some highly significant global trends are driving this industry while raising problems that the Food Tech community is trying to solve. For example, how will we consume our food in the future? How do the concepts of sustainability and food fit together? – In other words, how can enough food be produced without destroying our planet and leaving future generations an inheritance of scorched earth? How will we feed the Third World? And how can we make the food we eat more nutritious and more natural?”
70% of the world’s farmland produces animal fodder, mainly soybeans, meaning that 70% of agricultural production does not go directly into meals for people. Instead, it feeds the animals that people, in turn, will eat. Cattle is more harmful to the ozone than automobiles, they drink more water than humans do, and they produce more pollution than vehicles. Even though, humanity continues to eat meat.
Zaidman explains that this problem has inspired some novel solutions. One startup is planning to produce ‘meat’ without killing any animals at all – test-tube meat. “They do a biopsy to take starter cells, and they culture the cells in a laboratory to grow them into a cut of meat. This process isn’t food engineering; it’s the food of the future. If it succeeds, we can have steak without the need to raise a single animal.
“This is exactly the kind of startup our incubator looks for – companies whose innovations will significantly change the food industry. Companies out to reduce production costs, to make food more accessible, to reduce sugar content, and to give people new sources of protein that will replace pollution-heavy livestock farms. Our mission is to bring positive change to the food industry, and in that way, to have a global impact.
“Corporate responsibility has improved in recent years. Startups are using technologies from the environmental sector to develop a more sustainable way of producing food: better production efficiency, treatment of waste and pollutants, and so on. Tracking and traceability are also provided for products, to ensure that a product which shouts ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’ is true to its label.
“A most recent and high-profile trend is returning focus to the food itself,” Zaidman continues. “The trend is to remove everything unnatural from our food – all preservatives, stabilizers, oxidizers, and emulsifiers. The developers want the resulting food to have less sugar and less salt, have more vitamins, be less processed, and so on”.
A rich protein made from the larvae of flies
Flying SpArk is a startup at The Kitchen. “I’ve been an entrepreneur for about 14 years,” says CEO Eran Gronich. “I’ve already Founded a few startups, but nothing about food so far. I got into most of my past innovations by chance or out of curiosity.
“After I had sold my previous company, and was looking for something to do, I saw a TED talk by a Dutch university professor dealing with how to feed the world in another 40 or 50 years, when the global population reaches nine billion people. He spoke about the harm to the environment from cattle, poultry, and pig breeding. And the inefficiency, instability, medical problems, and so on. The professor said that the solution is to switch to an insect protein.
“That grabbed my interest, and I started to study the issue. Despite intense study, I struggled to find a solution. But then I met my partner, who’s an entomologist – an expert on insects. It was his idea to produce the protein from fruit fly larvae.”
The fruit fly is considered a pest. It eats only fresh fruit. Its life cycle has four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult fly. It doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, it doesn’t pollute the environment, and it is very nutritious. In protein and iron, it’s comparable to regular meat if not better. “The most important angle is the economic one,” Gronich explains. “This is the cheapest source of animal protein. We turn it into a powder, we remove the fat, and the resulting low-fat powder is 75% protein with no cholesterol. No other meat product can compare with it in nutritional values.
“Our final product has the texture of flour. There’s no problem of taste. We tried all kinds of experiments in making products from this powder: bread, beans, breakfast cereals, crackers. We realized that if we use our powder instead of about 30% of the flour in a recipe, we get bread or cookies that are rich in protein, iron, magnesium, calcium, and more. We’ve also created ‘juicy’ products – such as hamburgers or schnitzel substitutes – without slaughter, without environmental pollution, and without cholesterol. We’ve also produced milk with more protein and calcium than cow’s milk has.”
“We’re now in the R&D stage. We have two labs: one to grow and feed the larvae, and the other for the hard work of turning them to powder. We’ve started preparing samples, and several customers are already interested in the product. In another six months, in mid-2017, we’ll be ready to sell small quantities. Then we’ll progress to our next round, to set the larger-scale factory up.
“There’s a significant advantage in belonging to The Kitchen. Here we can gain expertise in specific fields, as well as utilize what I call ‘the benefit of centralization.’ Every week or two the incubator has visitors – a suitable investor, a multinational food company, or a large delegation from somewhere. Whether Israeli or foreign, everyone interested in Food Tech visits the incubator. So, we find a lot of opportunities to make contacts and raise capital”.