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In a previous life, I wrote a lot about consumer broadband technology. As with any industry, the world of Internet and broadband has a lot of inside baseball conversation, and one of the evergreen themes the industry wrestles with is whether or not the intelligence in the network should reside centrally or at the edge.
In the 90s, the industry talked about network computing. At the beginning of this century, it was about fat vs. thin clients. Later we started talking about distributed and edge computing. While the terms change and technology evolves, this a conversation the world of tech has been having – and continues to have – ever since the network became the lynchpin to everything that we do.
Why am I talking about this in a food tech newsletter?
Because for the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking about how the power of technology – digitization, software, robotics – is reversing what has been a longstanding megatrend towards centralization of nearly everything in food. All along the food value chain – from big ag to food manufacturing to food retail – the primary focus of innovation up until the past decade has been towards a concentration of the means of production, distribution, culinary expertise and pretty much everything else to gain massive efficiencies of scale. If we’re going to feed a rapidly growing population, why not apply what we learned from Henry Ford and other titans of the industrial age to food?
But now, through the power of tech, we’re seeing a reversal of this century-long trend, where digitization, software, IoT, AI, and robotics are unleashing a massive reinvention of food systems and unleashing pockets of innovation and the power of creation everywhere you look.
What this means is we are seeing the great decentralization of food intelligence. In food retail, IT, robotics and digital powered micromanufacturing start to make its way to the different storefronts. In the restaurant space, we’re beginning to see automation and robotics to create hamburgers at the quality a Michelin star chef would make them, only without the chef. And at home, we’re witnessing the emergence of digital technologies used to grow food and prepare food and beverages beyond the capability of the home cook.
No matter what we want to call it – digitization of food, the intelligent edge for food (distributed fooding?) – I see it everywhere I look, including in this week’s news…
One example of the intelligent edge of food is in coffee. Our coffee tech expert Garrett Oden was at the Specialty Coffee Expo this past week and wrote about how Bellwether is moving coffee roasting from the roastery into the coffee shop with their tech-powered coffee roasters. Others like Bonaverde are creating multifunction coffee machines that give the home coffee user new capabilities through technology.
Distributed, digital powered intelligence.
And last week, we talked about robots bringing micromanufacturing to the grocery store aisles, fresh-tossed salads to vending machines and making amazing burgers in restaurants. Sure, automation has been a big deal for in food for some time, but mostly in centralized environments. What’s different now is the advancement in software, sensors, and robotics to mimic essentially some of the things only a person had been able to do more recently.
Venture investor Avidan Ross, who spoke on our investor panel last week at ArticulATE, talked about just this topic and how while we’ve been automating food production for decades, it’s only in the last few years where we’ve seen robotics advance to the point where new capabilities in the creation of food using these technologies have been possible:
“I think what’s interesting now is that we’ve been able to move into chaotic unstructured environments at the endpoint,” said Ross.
This, by the way, is the same point made by Google’s robotic chief, Vincent Vanhoucke, at the same event. From this morning’s post by Chris Albrecht:
Vanhoucke’s team is working on taking the things robots do well — moving around — and marrying that with advancements in computer vision and deep learning to make robots more useful in the messy and complicated real world. And it turns out that food in particular, with its different textures and properties, is quite messy and complicated.
In short, technology is enabling us to do things with food at the edge in a way that was not possible before. Whether it’s the peace dividends from advancements software, autonomous cars, AI or what-have-you, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the world of food is seeing the emergence of distributed intelligence that is creating a new wave of innovation that will continue to disrupt the food systems for decades to come.
There was lots of interesting news this week outside of coffee, robotics and the intelligence edge for food, including continued activity in the world of alternative protein. Catherine wrote this morning about the recent exit of protein giant Tyson from its investment in Beyond Meat on the eve of the plant-based meat startup’s IPO. She also covered a new startup trying to create animal-free cheese using a process they describe as “recombinant protein technology.”
In the consumer kitchen, Innit partnered up with contract manufacturer Flex and Google to create a suite of ingredient solutions to fast-track the development of smart kitchen appliances. On the delivery front, Google got approval from the FAA to do drone delivery, while Postmates beefed up its delivery location roster in advance of its IPO.
Finally, there are just a few days left to get the best price of the year for Smart Kitchen Summit tickets with Super Early Bird pricing. Use the discount code NEWSLETTER for an additional 15% off (use this link to have the promotion automatically applied).
That’s it for now. Have a great week everyone!
P.S. We’re launching a Future Food newsletter covering alternative proteins, cell-based meat, bioreactors and more! Interested? Subscribe here.