UT Food Lab Finalists: Robotic Chefs, Edible Insects, Virtual Farmers Market

Even the most fundamental of human endeavor, say, eating, can benefit from innovation.

That’s the spirit behind the Food Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, an initiative that seeks to take an entrepreneurial look at how we grow, distribute, and eat food.

“We’re bringing people to the table who normally don’t get together: farmers and architects, food entrepreneurs but also academics,” says Robyn Metcalfe, founder and director of the UT Food Lab.

More than 60 teams submitted business plans for the “Food Lab Challenge Prize,” which encourages innovation in inputs and production; processing, packaging, and safety; storage and distribution; and healthy eating and food education.

A panel of 30 judges evaluated the proposals and, today, UT names 21 finalists for the competition, which will award a total of $30,000 in prizes. These startups are now being paired with industry mentors who have expertise in various areas of the food business, from agriculture and nutrition to venture funding, technology and food packaging. One team will receive the grand prize of $10,000 next February.

A majority of the competing teams are from Austin, with a handful of others from California, Atlanta, and Somerville, MA. These projects include customized 3D printed food for astronauts in space (Contractor,) an online farmers market (CitySprout,) a couple of food robotics companies (Sereneti Kitchen and GoodBot,) and ELISA-type tests for food safety (PHW Green Food Lab.)

Overall, Metcalfe says she is pleased that many of the projects went beyond app or social media proposals and had those in the maker community building and making things to solve problems or weaknesses in the food system. The biggest surprise was the number of proposals related to insects as a sustainable and inexpensive source of protein. (One of the finalists, Cramen, is working on cricket-based protein and spirulina algae-based spice blend for third-world countries.)

“Bugs!” she says. “We’ve seen a big push in this edible category as it relates to alleviating hunger and providing an alternative source of protein.”

The newly established Food Lab at UT has academic partnerships with Startup Aggieland of Texas A&M, FoodSol at Wellesley, MA-based Babson College, and MIT. The focus on food innovation at the academic level comes as investment in food and agriculture-related technologies have jumped in recent years. Nationally, big tech names like Steve Case and Eric Schmidt have made significant investments in food startups, and AccelFoods, an accelerator with a dedicated fund, closed on applications for its third class of startups earlier this month.

In Texas, Food on the Table, an Austin subscription dietary plan service, was acquired last April by the Food Network. Around that time, Peach, which is also based in Austin, was started by two UT MBA students. Peach is a farm-to-table app that connects chefs and restaurant buyers with local farms, who otherwise could not market their meat and produce as easily.

Our food ecosystem has long been an interest of Metcalfe’s. Before founding the Food Lab at UT, she was the founding director and CEO of Kelmscott Rare Breeds Foundation and Farm in Lincolnville, ME. She also wrote “Meat, Commerce and the City: The London Food Market, 1800-1855” and made the documentary, “The Miracle of Feeding Cities.”

Technological innovation, she says, has yet to be fully leveraged to help solve problems in our food system, from agriculture to distribution.

“Food has become such a personal and emotional issue right now and people are confusing what makes a good social cause with what makes a good business” she says. “That’s the sort of endeavor we are working with them on.”


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