Scientists predict that by the year 2030 there will be at least eight billion people on earth requiring 50 percent more food than is produced today. By 2050, that food deficit is expected to increase to 70 percent. Almost two thirds of the world’s fresh water is used in today’s water intensive agriculture practices. About 30 percent of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted each year. It doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to understand that we are slowly but surely moving towards the biggest challenge the human race has yet to face — having sufficient food and water for all of the inhabitants of our planet.
With international organizations and major research bodies increasingly sounding the alarm, some of the leading industry players and key thinkers came together at the annual Agritech Conference held in Tel Aviv last week. The conference and exhibition were an opportunity to get a look at some of the food related initiatives emerging from the Israeli innovation ecosystem.
Quietly and behind the scenes, a handful of brilliant entrepreneurs are pioneering technologies that are poised to revolutionize the world’s agricultural and nutrition industries. I met some of these companies at the Agrivest conference held the day prior to Agritech. The conference was organized by Trendlines Agtech, one of Israel’s leading tech incubators, in partnership with Greensoil Investments and the Israeli Ministry of Economy. Over 350 attendees heard from experts on a wide range of topics impacting the future of the food industry. A recurring theme was the need for all players to collaborate on a large scale, particularly in light of the almost total absence of venture funding in food tech.
While valuations of high tech companies are exploding, provoking debate on whether or not we’re in another tech bubble, the food space is almost entirely overlooked by the venture community. How many billion dollar firms are building technologies to address this critical issue? How many VC funds and multinational corporations are investing in innovation to develop solutions to the pending food crisis? How many international collaborations are under way to bring the best minds together, share research and knowledge, and drive a new world agenda? The answer to all these questions: too few.
At the Agritech exhibition I spent most of my time talking to companies in the Innovation Pavilion where some 20 startups occupied booths the size of a hallway coat closet. At times, the narrow corridors separating the four rows of booths were jam packed with curious visitors.
Israeli innovation has penetrated virtually every industry on the planet. Israel is a recognized leader in drip irrigation and desert agriculture. Less well known are breakthrough technologies based on hard sciences, i.e. biology and chemistry, in a wide range of agro and food related areas. Of course, a smattering of Israeli startups are developing mobile and web based software platforms connecting traditional agriculture with the digital age.
One of the satellite activities that took place this week was AGRIthon 2015, a two day ideation jam and venture creation workshop. Organized by the Israel Export Institute and The Manna Center Program at Tel Aviv University, the event brought together innovators, entrepreneurs, and experts to generate creative solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in smallholder farming. In the closing session, Steven Schonberger from the Water Global Practice of the World Bank addressed the audience with a riveting presentation on the state of smallholder farming in developing countries. Schonberger concluded with a plea to the audience, saying, “The world is looking to Israeli innovation to develop solutions for the food challenges of the coming years.”
Israel’s innovation engines are set to full speed ahead in the food tech space. Now we need quality commercialization partners from around the world to get these new technologies to market. In response to that need, an initiative is under way to connect the Food Innovation Center (FIC) at New Jersey’s Rutgers University with Israel’s research and entrepreneurship community.
New Jersey is a world leading hub of the food industry, providing end to end infrastructure for developing, growing, manufacturing, packaging, and delivering food products. Lou Cooperhouse, the director of the FIC, will be in Israel next month to launch an industry collaboration and a go-to-market program for young Israeli companies seeking to enter the U.S. market. Let’s hope that this initiative is only the first of many more to come.