Someone once had the crazy sounding, crazy idea to cook food. With fire!
There are a lot of similarly crazy ideas being forwarded by food-related startups out there these days. Throw what you know about food in the blender–what we eat, how what we eat is produced, and how it’s distributed is all being reconstituted 😉
Although many of these startups are still in their early days, many are also showing strong and sustainable traction. Could this foretell a future “new normal” for food? I think so.
Let’s start with the more normal sounding, crazy ideas and progress to the crazy sounding, crazy ones.
Flashback to the Internet in the early 2000s. You probably remember Webvan, the startup that raised $1.2 billion to bring online ordering and home delivery of groceries mainstream (if you don’t remember, yes that really happened). There are a host of reasons cited for why Webvan failed and its bankruptcy was quite public. So it would seem a bit crazy to take another go at things, but that’s not stopping Instacart (which allows for 1-hour delivery of groceries from chains that people already know and love and that is much beloved by its many repeat customers). New technology is allowing Instacart to deliver the compelling consumer experience that Webvan could not sustain or even imagine, and FundersClub and FC’s friends at Khosla Ventures and Canaan Partners are proud to be investors. eBay, Google, Amazon, etc all have their eyes keenly on this space.
Just as folks in the future will look back on hailing a cab as an archaic and silly practice (instead of ordering one from a smartphone), they will undoubtedly see us repeatedly venturing out to buy the same necessities week after week as similarly archaic. Physical grocery shopping is not the epitome of convenience, and will evolve to being focused on discovery, experience, and novelty.
It’s not only groceries that are getting this treatment, but also complete meals–take for example the Y Combinator and FundersClub-backed Goldbely (which allows for next day delivery of specialty and gourmet food from restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shoppes, and more from around the US).
Entrepreneurs are also presently hard at work massively disrupting how food is produced and how it’s distributed and sourced. Whether it’s solving the inefficiency of today’s food supply and distribution network, trying to sever the long-standing tie between fossil fuels and fertilizers, creating efficient marketplaces for at-scale food sale and purchase, or other efforts, entrepreneurs are busy at work applying technology to solve what is one of our most pressing problems to address as a species. Taking on a system where governments and private corporations control double digit percents of the global food supply, control the means to grow and produce food, and are using both to maintain the status quo, certainly seems pretty crazy. I’m looking forward to witnessing more and more startup founders take on this space. It feels naive to think that startups alone will address world hunger, but it also feels like they are the only ones focused on finding efficient, new solutions.
Now to the developments that may make you think we’re living in a scifi movie, and may even make you cringe. What is interesting is that these concepts are coming out of the lab and into real life in response to paying customer demand that spans consumer to industrial, as well as due to the existence of complementary technology just becoming commercially viable for the first time. In view of that, it’s difficult to dismiss these as crazy and impractical, just as crazy and happening whether you’re ready for them or not.
NASA just announced that it’s beginning a paid trial with a small private company to explore the concept of 3D printing food for astronauts on long duration space missions. Although still at the concept stage, there are plenty of implications for terrestrial people as well, both of the end-world-hunger variety and of the eat-foods-that-you-can’t-find-in-nature variety.
Separately, a group of engineers have just announced the disturbingly-named but awesomely disruptive Soylent (a meal replacement that is meant to rival regular food from a health point of view and that helps people distinguish between eating to address hunger vs. eating for pleasure). Even the Economist picked up on the story less than a week after the company that manufactures Soylent launched its web site for consumers to pre-order Soylent meal replacement powder. Just a week later, over $330,000 orders and counting have been placed. Disclosure: I’ve ordered a one-week supply of Soylent.
And a little bit more on the edge of the cliff, Dr. Post at Maastricht University and Dr. Gabor Forgacs of Modern Meadow have been making headlines recently for their lab-grown beef and other meat products. Disclosure: I have *not* ordered lab-grown meat…yet 😉
It’s easy to be a skeptic of some of these more out-there concepts, or even some of the less controversial ones. Customers don’t actually want them, the government won’t approve this, you’ll never overcome the established players, it’s not safe, it’ll taste disgusting, WHY???, this will never be cost-effective, the impact on the environment is disastrous rather than helpful, etc. Meanwhile, startup founders are busy ticking off each of these objections as they reimagine our very definition of food.