At the first SKS in 2015, a group of like-minded folks in the world of food tech and connected kitchen got together in an old cannery for a day because we knew change was afoot, but had only just started to think about maybe doing something about it. Sure it was noisy, crowded, and we had an old couch on the stage (I still feel bad about making three full-grown adults sit on it), but the connections that started that day have continued to grow ever since.
Fast forward to SKS 2019, and it’s clear that we as an event and an industry have come a long way.
Not only were we in a beautiful waterfront venue with lots more space for breakout talks, startup and sponsor displays and dedicated meeting spaces, but the conversation itself had moved on from the theoretical to finding practical solutions and figuring out how to get things done.
And so in this week’s Spoon newsletter, we thought we’d reflect on some of the biggest takeaways from the last two days in Seattle. Below Chris, Jenn, Catherine and myself each wrote about what we took away from SKS 2019.
CHRIS: Robots are Ready to Grapple with Bigger Issues
When it comes to food robotics and automation, the questions are evolving from straight technical ones like “Can a robot do X?” to deeper, existential ones like “Great, but what does that mean for the people using and working with them?”
During our panel discussion, Chas Studor, Co-Founder and CTO of Briggo spoke about before installing its automated Coffee Haus at SFO, the airport required changes to make the kiosk accessible to the visually impaired. Briggo’s solution was to attach something akin to a Bat Phone on the side of the machine. Visually impaired customers can pick up the phone and speak directly with a Briggo rep, who places their order.
Elsewhere, Shawn Lange of Lab2Fab made a compelling presentation on why $15 an hour is not the real problem for food companies looking at automation. Lange posited that automation can actually make jobs more rewarding and easier by removing the monotonous and dangerous tasks, and in doing so, companies can embrace higher wages.
There are still a lot of societal issues that need to be addressed as automation makes its way deeper into our lives. I’m just glad to see that companies aren’t just recognizing the issues, but engaging with it and creating solutions.
JENN: Wellness Is Now a Design for Living . . . and Your Kitchen
It’s no secret that “wellness” is on the minds of many these days, and a recurring theme at SKS was how a trendy term is evolving from buzzword to business driver as companies create solutions to design healthier eating habits into daily life.
A major example of this was when architects Veronica Schreibeis Smith, of wellness-focused kitchen company Vera Iconica, and MIT Media Labs’ Suleiman Alhadidi took the stage to discuss how wellness is changing the way home kitchens get designed — literally. Both speakers showed off solutions that utilize everything from robotic cabinets to temperature-controlled pantries to space in the cabinetry for hydroponic grow systems. The idea behind these up-and-coming designs is to make it easier for the average consumer to access fresh ingredients daily, utilize space, and make the home-cooking process for healthy meals much more efficient.
In a different panel, Sherry Zhang, CEO of GenoPalate, explained that 40 percent of health is due to human behavior, and that all the health data in the world won’t help consumers if they can’t figure out how to change their behavioral patterns. How will we get there? Zhang suggested AI will play a big part in this, with intelligence eventually embedded into our actual cooking devices, like ovens.
We’re still some ways off from that day. Cost remains a big barrier for some of these health-focused kitchen solutions. As more companies start to focus their innovation efforts in this area, we’ll see those costs start to come down, hopefully for both devices and the food itself.
CATHERINE: Alternative Protein is On the Cusp of a Major Revolution
When most people think about the future of protein, their thoughts turn to plant-based meats like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both of which have been grabbing tons of media headlines.
But at SKS 2019, we dove into new worlds of alternative protein. Sure, plant-based was one — but it extends far beyond faux burgers. I spoke with Bjorn Oste of Oatly, Daniel Scharff of JUST, and scientist Dr. PK Newby about the trajectory of plant-based revolution and why it’s only going to keep growing (thanks, Gen Z).
Plant-based protein popularity may be growing, but so is our desire for protein in general. Plants can help feed this protein hunger, sure, but the solution may also lie with cell-based meat and aquaculture. That’s what Lou Cooperhouse of BlueNalu and David Kay of Memphis Meats told me in our discussion on what’s next for cultured meat. I was interested to learn that they don’t envision this new protein source replacing all traditional meat, but rather helping to fill the delta between how much protein we can grow on earth, and how much we’ll need to feed the world. Just as soon as it gains regulatory approval, of course.
One of the most futuristic talks of the day was our panel on next-generation protein building blocks. Perumal Gandhi of Perfect Day, Dr. Lisa Dyson of Air Protein, and Morgan Keim of Motif FoodWorks dove into the emergent field of fermentation protein, a technology that can help us have our animal-free ice cream and save the planet, too. As long as we can figure out what to call it…
Perhaps the biggest question of all was tackled at the very end of the conference, when I spoke with Jaime Athos, CEO of Tofurky, which is suing two states over product labeling restrictions, about what exactly defines meat — and who gets to say so. That’s a question that will likely guide the availability (or lack thereof) of many of these new sources of protein going forward. If you want to stay up to date with the latest, make sure to subscribe to our Future Food newsletter!
MIKE: The Entire Food and Cooking Ecosystem Is Being Transformed and So It’s Time To Work Together
As I said in my intro, this year was all about figuring out how to get things done. After all, we can speak about what we think will happen in the future, but unless we take stock of what is working and what isn’t, we’ll take twice as long to get to our desired destination.
So in my first session I had Joe Ray, fresh off his article for Wired about the smart kitchen, on stage with Nick Holzherr of Samsung and Mario Pieper of BSH Appliances to discuss just that. Joe made it clear he doesn’t think many of the current connected kitchen products are ready for primetime, but agreed there are some tech-forward products that provide true value to the consumer and expected there would be more in the future once the industry figures things out. Nick Holzherr emphasized the need to focus less on gadgets and more on building well-orchestrated consumer experiences, while Mario Pieper discussed how BSH had learned many lessons early on in the connected kitchen and said the industry needs to work together to make the future kitchen vision a reality.
I also had a great session on the evolving meal journey and the potential for technology to shape it with Beth Altringer of the Flavor Genome Project, Nancy Roman of Partnership for a Healthier America and Sanjeev Kapoor, India’s most well-known celebrity chef. While the three came to the conversation with widely varying backgrounds, all agreed there is significant potential in addressing some of society’s biggest problems through applying innovation to the food system and inside our own kitchens.
One of my favorite sessions was a discussion I had about the changing eating habits of Gen Z and Millennials with NPD analysts Joe Derchowski and Susan Schwalle. Susan pointed out that while some in the press think many consumers have given up almost entirely on eating at home in favor of ordering out or heading to the corner restaurant, in reality the data is skewed because of the high-price of outside of home dining. Joe pointed out that the future of food shopping lies in the ability to connecting our kitchens through smart home technology to food retail.
We saw how connected kitchen products hold the potential to completely reinvent how CPG product companies approach product development from Victor Penev of Edemam and Marc Drucker of Drinkworks. Drucker discussed how data gathered from consumption of cocktails with their connected drink maker helped them realize how consumers are using it during the day and identify product holes in the drink pod lineup.
I talked to those founders building software for the digitization of food and the kitchen – Kevin Brown of Innit, Ben Harris of Drop, Kevin Yu of SideChef and Jeff Xie of Chefling – who all felt that it was essential to reduce the effort required of the consumer by better connecting all parts of the meal journey from shopping to meal discovery to cooking itself.
My belief that food waste is having a moment as a critical focus for the broader food industry was confirmed throughout the two days at SKS. Many speakers made it clear their companies have made sustainability a core focus for new products, and we saw lots of excitement for our new Wise Kitchen Initiative with the Future Food Institute to foster innovation to reduce food waste in the home.
And of course, we had a great master session on how tech and innovation is reshaping food in Japan. Led by SKS Japan‘s Hirotaka Tanaka, the session illustrated the diversity and passion of the rapidly growing food tech market in Japan. This session was capped off by a fascinating look at the joint project to develop food for space, Space Food-X, which included a presentation from Yuta Kikuchi of JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency.
Before We Go
And now some thanks. Thank you to the Spoon team you heard from above – Chris Albrecht, Catherine Lamb and Jenn Marston – who worked hard all year to tell the stories of the people and companies doing interesting things in this space and then brought these stories alive on stage in Seattle.
Thanks to the SKS event team – including the always amazing Ashley Daigneault, Susan Volland, and (once-again) Catherine Lamb, who clearly does a bit of everything – for helping to bring this growing event together in so many ways.
Thanks to all the incredible speakers, who traveled to Seattle to share their expertise and experience.
Thanks for our partners from SKS Japan who not only crafted a great session, but also brought a big and enthusiastic contingent from Japan to connect with the SKS community.
Thanks to the startups finalists who took time out from building their companies to share their story with us.
Thanks to our fantastic volunteers, who gave us a day (some two) of their time to help pull this off.
And finally, a big thank you to our sponsors. Without your support, there is no way SKS would be possible.
With SKS 2019 in the books, we are more excited than ever about building this community, covering the innovators and disrupters, and continuing the conversation. We are already planning for SKS 2020 and are looking forward to seeing many of you in Las Vegas at FoodTech Live @ CES to discuss how we can build this future together.