The Full List
This year’s list is still about that, but needless to say 2020 has been one big, awful disruption itself thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything got turned upside down. The restaurant industry was decimated. Online grocery shopping experienced record setting sales. And the weaknesses in our supply chain were exposed as people panicked and left store shelves bare.
This year’s Food Tech 25 isn’t an all-pandemic list, but watching how companies navigated this, the darkest timeline, was certainly a factor for us. This list is the culmination of weeks of research and intense debate around The Spoon’s (virtual) offices. And while it’s not exhaustive, we feel this Food Tech 25 represents the best, brightest and most innovative companies in the space pandemic or no.
Think we missed a company, or have a question about how we came up with this list? Drop us a line and let us know!
Everything you need to know about Air Protein’s main business is in the company’s name. Air Protein makes edible protein from air — specifically carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen that, when fed to single-cell organisms creates an edible protein. That may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the process is actually similar to brewing beer or making yogurt, and while still nascent, it’s another sustainable alternative to traditional protein sources. Air Protein, which spun out of Kiverdi, has named meatless meat and protein powder as potential areas for its protein, though it will be a couple of years before any actual products hit the market.
With its recent $250 million funding round, Apeel looks to be food waste’s first unicorn. With good reason too. The company’s edible coating extends the life of produce by up to three times its normal life, and is finding traction with both grocers and consumers. Apeel’s coating, which keeps oxygen out and water in, extending produce shelf life, started on avocados and citrus. Now, the company has its eyes set on asparagus and cucumbers. Today you can find Apeel-coated avocados in over 1,100 Krogers and on store shelves in Denmark and Germany. This year, the company also hopes to bring its technology to Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
Whether for biological or environmental reasons, breastfeeding is not something that is equally available to every mother. That is why BIOMILQ is creating cultured human breast milk in a lab. It’s patent-pending technology triggers human mammary gland cells kept suspended in a stream of nutrients to lactate. The company says that using this approach to supplement any shortfalls in a mother’s milk is more environmentally friendly and healthier for a baby than other dairy-based formulas. The technology is still very early on, but could change the way babies are fed around the world. BIOMILQ just received $3.5 million in funding to work on production and begin engaging with doctors, families and other organizations focused on breastfeeding.
Between problems with over-fishing and microplastics, the world’s fish stocks are in peril. Enter BlueNalu, which is creating cell-based cultured fish. It’s starting with finfish like yellowtail and mahi mahi, but the kicker is that the company says its product can cook just like the “real” thing. Seared, steamed or ceviched, BlueNalu’s fish can maintain its integrity. While the product is still years out from hitting your grocery aisle, the company raised $20 million earlier this year and signed a lease on a new facility that will produce between 200 and 500 pounds of commercial cultured fish a week in the second half of 2021.
Chipotle was one of the few major restaurant brands to emerge from nationwide shelter-in-place mandates with stronger digital sales than before. A big reason for this is the company’s unflinching commitment to using tech to build a better restaurant experience both in the restaurant and via off-premises channels. In the last year alone, the chain has expanded its delivery program, tested new store formats that emphasize digital ordering and payments, and basically turned its mobile app into a virtual recreation of the in-house experience. All of this and more has so far gotten the brand through the current upheaval in which the restaurant industry finds itself — and will inevitably provide some blueprints for other smaller chains.
You know what is not coming back anytime soon? Salad bars. Whether they are at the grocery store or in a restaurant, the idea of bins of food sitting out in the open served with utensils hundreds of other people have touched is not appetizing, to say the least. This is why Sally, Chowbotics’ salad-making robot, could shine in these pandemic times. It houses 22 ingredients in separate, sealed chambers that are themselves kept inside the sealed confines of the robot. This provides a level of transparency around hygiene that a wary nation re-emerging from quarantine will seek out. Plus, the bot can hold lots of different ingredients, so it can also make parfaits, grain bowls and a whole lot more. While Chowbotics lost a line of business when universities closed down, there are big opportunities for the company in retail.
There’s a revolution brewing in the world of food, pharmaceuticals and other industries in the form of biomanufacturing. Nascent startups like Geltor and others look to build the next big food product using bioreactors, rather than industrial food processing. Right now, the primary limiting factor is access to on-demand biomanufacturing capacity and related digital tool workflows to help accelerate the move into scaled production. Culture, which bills itself as a cloud bioreactor company, is building a bioreactor-on-demand service and has gained over 50 clients since its launch. In the way Cisco and Amazon provided platforms to help build out the Internet 1.0 and 2.0, Culture is positioning itself as a pick-and-shovel company for the cell-ag food revolution.
It’s been a couple years since Drop pivoted from building its own hardware (the Drop scale) to making software to digitize the consumer kitchen. But if the last 12 months are any indication, the company made the right move. Over the past year, Drop has continued to pick up integration partners for its “kitchen OS,” including deals with two of the leading connected kitchen hardware brands, Thermomix and Instant Pot. The company also was featured recently by Apple as an early App Clips partner, and, in June 2020, announced a $13.3 million funding round. The new funding round also brings a couple new board members, including the former lead engineer for Android, Steve Horowitz.
Many vertical farming companies are trying to make the supply chain for leafy greens more local by placing grow systems in massive warehouses close to major cities. Berlin-based InFarm has actually removed even more steps from that supply chain by dropping its indoor farms right inside the grocery store. These standalone farm pods can live in the produce section (or restaurant kitchen) and run off a mix of software and hydroponics to grow leafy greens and herbs, which are some of the most difficult produce types to transport. InFarm is already in Coop Denmark stores, Marks & Spencer in the U.K., Kroger stores in the U.S., and Aldi Süd in Germany.
While cell-based meat is a ways away from hitting the mainstream, there are lots of companies working hard to make it happen. We picked Integriculture partly because of its technology, but also because of its founder, Yuki Hanyu, who also founded the DIY cultured meat community Shojinmeat. That’s right. DIY cell meat in your home. They even created a Manga comic to show people how to do it. Hanyu’s Integriculture just nabbed $7.4 million in funding and has plans on releasing its first product, a faux foie gras, to restaurants by 2021. But that’s just the beginning. Hanyu presented a grand vision for his company’s future at last year’s SKS: Japan, which included giant bioreactors churning out cell-based meat for space travelers.
If you’ve been to Sweden lately, it’s increasingly hard to miss Karma’s pink fridges that sell excess food from local restaurants and food retailers. In over 4,000 locations across the country, Karma enables the restaurants and grocery stores to sell food they would otherwise throw away at half price to consumers, who find and purchase the food through the Karma app. The Stockholm-based startup, which has raised almost $17 million, also has fridges in in the U.K. (1,800) and France (1,000), with plans to eventually bring them to the US. Like many companies, Karma was impacted by COVID-19, but the startup quickly ramped up a food delivery business in Sweden and the U.K. to help retailers sell food products. To date, the company has over 1 million app downloads and 7,500 partners using their network to sell excess food.
When it comes to providing restaurants extra kitchen infrastructure for fulfilling delivery orders, Kitchen United is one of the indisputable leaders of the space. The company offers restaurants a turnkey package that includes the necessary space, equipment, and technology for doing off-premises restaurant businesses. Kitchen United has so far attracted big brands like Chick-fil-A, The Halal Guys, Dog Haus, and Boston Market. All that said, one of the most compelling things about KU is its realistic take on the role of the ghost kitchen and the criteria restaurants need to meet to even consider one. That reality check is refreshing in an industry that tends to get overhyped, and a necessary one for restaurant serious about doing off-premises over the long haul.
Here’s the deal with Middleby. They are everywhere, working behind the scenes to help make some of the most innovative technology a reality. High-end appliances, food robotics, augmented reality, out-of-the-box ghost kitchens . . . the company has a hand in all of that. The company moved deeper into the consumer space last year with the acquisition of Brava, and will implement that company’s light-based cooking tech into other products. It’s an old saw, to be sure, but Middleby is providing the picks and pans for those seeking food tech gold.
While the Millo blender has yet to launch, its innovative upside down design, and quiet magnetic air-drive motor made it a winner at our 2019 Smart Kitchen Summit. But in addition to its good lookin’ blender, the company debuted a smart table at this years CES. The table uses the same magnetic air drive to wirelessly power appliances and an induction cooktop to create a hot surface for cooking. While we still need to see how Millo makes the leap to full production of its devices, the company is definitely thinking big and looking to, errr, mix things up.
There’s a reason Perfect Day’s dairy-alternative ice cream sold out of its very limited test run in mere hours last year. Despite its hefty price tag (almost $60 for three pints plus $60 for shipping), the flora-based ice cream is immensely popular, probably in no small part because it’s indistinguishable from the real thing. The FDA has officially approved the company’s flora-based protein as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), and Perfect Day has also nabbed a little over $200 million in funding so far. Ice cream isn’t the company’s only ambition, either. Perfect Day has “numerous product launches” planned for the future.
The whole point of food robots is to bring precision and consistency to food prep. It also doesn’t hurt that they can do repetitive tasks all day without getting tired, injuring themselves or taking a break. Picnic was a hit at the 2019 Smart Kitchen Summit, where it launched its pizza-assembling robot. The modular machine can top 200 pizzas an hour, and new nodes can be easily added to expand the range of toppings. But to really understand why Picnic is on the list, you have to see beyond the pizza and into any type of quick-service food that needs to be assembled fast. The Picnic robot could also be used for sandwiches, wraps/burritos and more.
Creating plant-based protein is one thing. Creating it at scale and on the same price parity as traditional meat is another, and one not every plant-based protein company has accomplished. That’s one of the major reasons Rebellyous, which uses tech to do just that, landed on our list this year. The company started out in the B2B realm, supplying hospital cafeterias with its chicken nuggets made of soy and wheat protein. When COVID-19 hit, it quickly pivoted to offering its plant-based ‘nuggs on retail shelves in the Seattle area for a similar price and protein content as other chicken nuggets.
Refraction’s REV-1 is like the Goldilocks of autonomous robot delivery. It’s a rugged, three-wheeled robot that can speed along in the bike lane even in inclement weather. It’s this form factor that sets it apart from other autonomous robot delivery services. Smaller rover bots are slower and have to use the sidewalks; bigger solutions like pod vehicles or full-sized cars are less nimble than the REV-1. Sheltering in place during the pandemic made deliveries a lifeline for people stuck at home, but they also put gig working delivery people at risk. Refraction’s robots may provide one answer for a delivery hungry nation, and local governments may be more open to autonomous vehicles on city streets since the pandemic.
Like other restaurant tech companies, Sevenrooms quickly pivoted during the pandemic to offer digital tools to make the dining room more socially distant. But online menus and contactless solutions aren’t the only thing setting Sevenrooms apart from he pack. The company’s guest-management platform puts special emphasis on data — who owns it, how restaurants collect it, and, most important, how they can make it useful. Long before the shift to contactless everything, Sevenrooms was also experimenting with voice tech and personalization to help restaurants better understand everything from birthdays to which customers hate parsley. Data remains one of the most, if not the most, valuable assets a restaurant can own in today’s digital dining rooms. Sevenrooms continued focus on keeps that important conversation on the table.
SinGrow is notable among vertical farming companies because it isn’t just making a high-tech system to grow leafy greens. Company co-founder Bao Shengjie has since 2016 been been cross-breeding the seeds of strawberries — an especially difficult plant to get in Singapore — for years now, and the company grows its own versions of the fruit using proprietary hardware and software systems. Some robotics provide further automation to the process, which brings down the costs of producing non-leafy greens via vertical farming. And SinGrow isn’t stopping at strawberries. The company plans to grow other crops in the future to supply the local Singapore food supply chain with more homegrown goods.
While some kitchen tech startups have struggled, Tovala’s been on an upward trajectory over the past year as demand for its meal delivery service and smart steam oven has skyrocketed. It’s not just COVID-related demand either (though that’s helped). CEO David Rabie says once the startup stopped thinking of itself as a tech company and made helping busy consumers put dinner on the table its mission, it saw demand spike. This spiking demand and insanely high retention rate compared to other meal delivery companies helped Tovala raised $20 million during a pandemic to fuel company growth.
WORLD CENTRAL KITCHEN
World Central Kitchen may not be the tech-iest entrant on this list, but it is certainly innovative during a time of massive disruption across the food industry. The non-profit fronted by Chef José Andrés has responded quickly to help feed people during previous disasters, and the global panedmic was no exception. The restaurant industry has been decimated by COVID-19 and World Central Kitchen is helping keep it alive by purchasing millions of meals that are distributed to those in need. This pandemic will recede, but the work of World Central Kitchen will keep going, and the world is better for it.
ZERO G KITCHEN
There are a lot of perks to being an astronaut on the International Space Station. You’re pioneering space travel, advancing science, and there’s a killer view. But you know what you don’t get? Fresh baked cookies. At least not yet. But Zero G Kitchen is working to change all that. It’s developed an oven that can be used in the tight spaces and microgravity of a space ship. The dough is stored and cooked in silicone rack inside a special cylindrical oven. The Zero G was used to bake cookies on the ISS at the end of last year, but sadly, the astronauts on board weren’t allowed to eat them, they had to be frozen for further study. Hopefully, fresh-baked cookies will blast off soon.
There are plenty of startups looking to retrofit grocery stores with cashierless checkout technology (not mention Amazon wants to license out its tech). But Zippin separates itself from the pack by going small. The company launched Zippin Cubes last year for retail brands to create cashierless pop-up retail. This year it was the first startup out of the gate to portion off a cashierless aisle of a supermarket. The effect was to create a store-within-a-store and could start a trend for grocers looking to create more contactless payment systems without diving all the way in to a full build out of cashierless tech.