Amid major changes in the way food is made and consumed, leaders of Minnesota food companies large and small came together Monday to spark new ideas that balance environmental constraints and increasing expectations from shoppers.
Jeff Harmening, CEO of General Mills, kicked off the inaugural Food, Ag, Ideas Week — an offshoot of the annual Twin Cities Startup Week but specifically focused on food and farming innovation — by drawing points of connection between the company and local innovators.
“Innovation happens at the joints,” Harmening said, “Minnesota already has the spirit of collaboration. We just have to develop the form.”
While large corporations can offer young companies expertise and experience, a theme of the gathering was that the smaller, nimbler enterprises also have lessons to teach and are the ones that will ensure Minnesota has a place in the future of food.
Farmers, food processors and distributors are trying to meet rising consumer demand for proteins, organics and a clearer picture of how food is farmed and sourced.
All along the food supply chain, producers are concentrating on processes and innovations that sustain the source of food, whether plant or animal, and the environment around it.
Meat, of which Minnetonka-based Cargill is one of the world’s largest producers, is one of the main challenges in food sustainability — and an opportunity for innovators. “We need to find new techniques to help feed the world the meat they want but without taxing our natural resources,” the company’s chief executive, David MacLennan, said.
Harmening leads one of the world’s largest food manufacturers, but he said the company has had to learn from the startup community how to adapt and change quickly. When General Mills develops new products, the goal now is to get the idea in front of consumers as quickly as possible so it can avoid a time-intensive, and expensive, flop.
For instance, the company’s most successful new product launch last year, Oui by Yoplait, looked nothing like its current form when the first prototype was tested. “It wasn’t called ‘Oui’ and it wasn’t in a glass pot,” Harmening said. The glass pot is now the yogurt product’s signature feature and a major selling point.
MacLennan and Doug Baker, chief executive of St. Paul-based Ecolab, a leader in food safety products, joined an evening audience that listened to nine startup executives demonstrate new products and services.
Both executives wore hooded sweatshirts, the casual top associated with the easygoing atmosphere of startups, with their dress pants and shiny shoes. “Corporate on bottom, startup on top,” Baker said.
The week’s events are designed to bring together diverse interests, from Fortune 500 food manufacturers to organic co-ops to agtech developers, with the ultimate goal of sustaining a vibrant state food industry that is known for creativity and collaboration. Innovators are hoping to attract investors to their ideas, while established firms are scanning for trends and, in an ultratight labor market, people to hire.
“There’s a war for talent,” MacLennan said. “We want to make Minnesota known for world-class technology.”
One relatively young firm, an online provider of farm loans and data services called Traive, announced it will move its headquarters to the Twin Cities from Boston.
The company’s chief executive, Fabricio Pezente of Brazil, noted that three-quarters of the world’s farming is done by people with little access to capital.
The company built a digital platform to connect those farmers with investors.
The companies that gave demonstrations Monday were the first to participate in the Farm to Fork accelerator program opened in St. Paul this year by Techstars, a business development organization based in Boulder, Colo.
One of those firms, Renewal Mill, an Oakland, Calif.-based startup that is finding new uses for byproducts created in food production, is already pursuing contracts.
“The program was more than we expected,” said Claire Schlemme, CEO of Renewal Mill. “The word ‘accelerator’ really lived up to its name. We have grown much quicker than we expected.”