Silicon Valley's Next Big Goal: Fixing Our Broken Food System

A raft of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists made their money in tech, and now want to do something with an even longer-lasting impact

At ali Partovi's Partovi Porktacular, the assembled tech-and food-world luminaries, dressed in their best jeans, nibble on tortellini stuffed with locally foraged mushrooms in the golden, late-afternoon light while waiting for the main event--a heritage-breed whole pig from Marin Sun Farms--to make the requisite number of turns on a spit to reach the optimal shade of mahogany and crispy-skinned goodness. You can hear the occasional cluck from a chicken coop, strategically placed away from the action. It was just the kind of party at which you might find Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and ­messiah of America's local-food revolution. In fact, Pollan is here, mingling among the likes of Dropbox cofounders Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, Airbnb CTO and ­cofounder Nate Blecharczyk, and Yelp CEO Jeremy ­Stoppelman. "Ali occupies a special place between Silicon ­Valley and the food movement," Pollan says. "He's become an important connector in the Bay Area."

This is not your garden-variety Silicon Valley tale of disruption. Partovi and his peers may embrace the typical food-reformer impulses in their personal lives--spurning processed food spewed from the industrial food complex, and if not making their own cheese and roasting their own coffee, then at least ordering $32 plates of roast chicken at chic farm-to-table restaurants. But as investors, they have no interest in throwing their lot in with Mark Bittman, Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, and other idealists and moralists who believe local and sustainable food can undercut the industrial system. If only urban yuppies voted with their recycled shopping bags at Whole Foods and farmers' markets, loading up on artisanal meats and heirloom vegetables, then perhaps small farmers wouldn't be robbed of their livelihoods. If only the food world were simpler, then perhaps we could end Americans' addiction to cheap food laden with salt, sugar, and fat.

The Valley's food-tech vanguard rejects this utopianism, choosing instead to embrace solutions that would redesign the systems and processes that have made the food industry a target of such ire. Redesigning is very different from dismantling. "If you were designing America's food and ag system from scratch, you'd never end up with what we have today," Partovi says. But it's what we have, which means it's the starting point. "What I want to figure out is, is there a way to come up with some creative ideas that are a path to the solution?"

This new approach acknowledges that we still want cheap and abundant food. And rather than shying away from technology because of the role it played in creating today's problems--for example, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, made from petroleum, fueled the explosive growth in the production of grains, soybeans, and corn, which in turn were used to make the processed foods that make up so much of the American diet--these new food reformers seek to use it strategically to produce what we want without costs to our environment and our health. That requires more complexity than a network of community gardens can provide.

"There really are two kinds of food entrepreneurs," says venture capitalist Paul Matteucci, who encourages and connects food-tech upstarts through his not-for-profit, Feeding 10 Billion. "There are the ones that hang around Berkeley or Brooklyn, and build businesses mostly for the end consumer. Then there is a whole different group of highly technical people who are building robotics for the field, sensor-based technology, automated watering systems, new food-packaging technologies, and big-data-related inventory control to reduce waste." These, he says, are "the people who are going to solve the big problems."

These challenges have led to significant investment dollars flooding into food-tech companies. Venture capitalists and angel investors put $103 million into agriculture technology between April 2012 and March 2013, a 150% increase from the previous year. They've also put nearly $350 million into food companies, seven times the total invested in 2008. Food businesses "have a different financial profile than dotcoms and software companies," admits Amol Deshpande, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who specializes in agriculture technology. "But it's also a business that is not quite as competitive, and it needs tech innovation. You are meeting a real need rather than developing more 'me too' products."

In October, Monsanto laid down $930 million in cash for Climate Corp., a firm founded by a pair of former Googlers that offers farmers detailed weather monitoring, prediction, and analysis. Foodies are quick to accuse Monsanto of being the evil empire. But in that move, small farms and farmers' markets will be presented with new ways to be more efficient--without modifying the actual food we eat. And as the first successful exit for the new breed of food-tech startup, it's expected to draw more money, ideas, and energy to the movement.

Although some of the most high-profile food-tech firms are creating alternative foods (and we highlight one of them here), not all of the most innovative solutions are in the meal-replacement business. Rather, they're like Climate Corp., a startup that improves upon our current infrastructure. These are some of the companies connected to Silicon Valley that are making a difference.

What does the food chain look like? We asked Academy Award-nominated filmmaker PES to imagine it.

[Photos by Christopher Boffoli]

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • Mir Ahsan

    We still have the issue of mass and growing poverty. See food, education, poverty, accessibility, social mobility. These have to be tackled together.

  • The article goes a long way of hyping these startups without ever explaining how they are supposed to 'improve upon the current infrastructure'. A bit of measuring here and analysing there will hardly fix a broken system.