May 14, 2020

Revolutionizing the Way We Eat

By Kristin Ng T’21

Last week, Tuck's Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital and the Tuck Food and Agriculture Club hosted one of the world’s largest conferences on agtech. We had over 900 attendees from over 40 countries listening to over 65 speakers who are changing how the world eats and produces food. The three-day virtual conference yielded over 20 hours of content and sparked fascinating conversation and dialogue.

Why should I care about agtech?

In conversations leading up to the event, what I found most striking was that many people did not initially think agtech was important to them. They usually understood that it had something to do with improving farming and using technology. The word “agtech” sounds similar to agriculture, a topic that doesn’t sound particularly glamorous or innovative. However, this could not be further from the truth: agtech is the way that we are going to improve every step in the food production process. In fact, you are already a consumer of the agtech ecosystem and you may not even know it.

Agri-food technology is generally split into three sections1: upstream, midstream, and downstream. Upstream refers to inputs to agriculture, closer to the farmer and before retail. In this arena, we’re seeing companies that are building robots that can harvest crops, creating autonomous tractors, and using artificial intelligence to determine when and how to fertilize plants.  Midstream is the food processing area. Here, we’re seeing improvements in food safety, developments in traceability technologies, and advancements in new proteins, my personal passion. The downstream branch is likely what you’re most familiar with. It includes online restaurants, meal kits, and food delivery. The Virtual Summit on AgTech focused mostly on the upstream and midstream areas of this field.

Agtech and COVID

As you can infer from the name, the Virtual Summit on AgTech is a virtual summit and it was always planned that way. However, it’s undeniable that the summit was coming at a particularly historic time in human history, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, passed from animals to humans, and is believed to have originated in humans at a market where animals were being sold for food.

It is undeniable that the way humans eat today is a major risk factor for pandemics. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain” and “preserving access to save food and nutrition is an essential part of the health response… we need to collaborate with every actor in the supply chain, build public-private partnerships, and promote innovation.” I believe that agtech will be integral to addressing these issues, and to helping us cope with and prevent future outbreaks. COVID-19 was a topic on everyone’s mind during the summit, and more broadly, we saw speakers continually making the connection between human diet and health, both physical and neurological, particularly at day two’s panel on Innovative CPG.

The Virtual Summit on AgTech

We split the three-day summit into three topics. Day one was dedicated to the next-generation agriculture and food economy. Topics on this day included investing in agtech, with talks by several venture capital firms and accelerators, alternative proteins and dairies, and the intersection of fintech and agtech. Day two was dedicated to innovations in agriculture. The day kicked off with presentations and panels by companies who are changing the way food is made, followed by talks on traceability and food safety, robotics, analytics, and marketplace solutions. The summit ended on day three, which examined international agtech developments and featured talks on agtech in India, Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and developing countries.

The Virtual Summit on AgTech was designed to be an accessible conference: we purposely kept the charge low, with funds going to charity, and videos are available anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi connection. This high accessibility meant we had people all over the world joining, with attendees from 47 countries and from every continent (except Antarctica). I was particularly inspired to see that about 27 percent of our attendees were students, representing 46 different educational institutions, who may not otherwise have had the ability to see all these speakers in one place.

Final Reflections

What’s made me the proudest after this event is hearing from people who said, “I never thought I was interested in this industry but hearing some of the speakers inspired me to learn more.” Agtech is so broad and touches so many areas of human life that it’s impossible to think of anyone that this industry doesn’t affect. I have friends interested in fintech who particularly enjoyed day one’s keynote: Where AgTech Meets FinTech, friends interested in biochemistry who asked some decidedly scientific questions to our three food scientists at day one’s panel: Breakthroughs in Proteins, and friends who just love to eat and wanted to hear pitches from startups that are creating delicious food. (Yes, some of us placed an order for gelato immediately after one pitch was over – we just had to try some!)

I enjoyed reconnecting with a member of my analyst class from my first job out of undergrad, who is now the CEO of AgVend, an online marketplace for agriculture professionals. I loved watching presentations and panels by leaders in the next generation food industry, whose companies are creating healthy food in a more sustainable manner, particularly presentations by Karana, my First-Year Project (FYP) company, and New Age Meats, where I’ll be interning this summer.

Observing the summit and listening to the various panels and presentations helped me formulate some thoughts on where this industry is going. I believe it is only going to get bigger and more important in the world of business: in 2019 alone, the agri-foodtech startup industry raised nearly $20 billion, a 250 percent increase over five years. Food safety will increasingly be top of mind for consumers as we grapple with outbreaks and pandemics. Alternative-proteins and healthier, more environmentally-friendly food products will continue to gain market-share and attract investments. Upstream areas will continue to grow, including ag-biotechnology, agribusiness marketplaces, farm management software, farm robotics, new farming systems, and fintech for farmers.

I decided to join the organization committee only a few weeks before the conference, encouraged by one of my FYP teammates who knew I was passionate about this topic. Between recruiting and coursework, I wasn’t sure I had the bandwidth to take on another project, so I agreed to assist in marketing for the event. However, the conference only got bigger and I began to take on more responsibilities, which ultimately led to me giving the opening remarks, along with organizer Alberto Ariztía Tagle T’20, and hosting the final keynote presentation of the conference with Impossible Foods. I’m excited to join two fellow T21s, Elizabeth Lenczowski Holmes and Robert Sewell, as chairs of the Tuck Food and Agriculture Club next year, where we hope you’ll join us for VSAT 2021. 

[1] This is my approximation of how the broad industry is split up: there are significant overlaps across the three streams, and some analysts divide the field into only upstream and downstream.

Kristin Ng is a T’21 who worked in financial services in New York City before coming to Tuck. She is an incoming co-chair of the Tuck Food and Agriculture Club and she will be interning with New Age Meats this summer. Learn more about the Virtual Summit on AgTech and watch replays