Target Corp. is weighing its options for what to do with its lab in Cambridge, Mass., that aims to bring more transparency to the food system.
Food + Future was one of a number of initiatives potentially on the chopping block as the Minneapolis-based retailer pared back some innovation-related projects in recent months.
The team running it has been looking for outside investors over the last couple months to take over the venture, which also includes a farm in Vermont. An offer surfaced at the 11th hour Tuesday as Target was preparing to shut it down, according to a source familiar with the matter.
"Our intent from the beginning was to incubate Food + Future within Target and then look at options for outside investment," Target said in a statement. "With that in mind, we have been working with the Food + Future team over the past few months to find interested outside investors. That exploratory work continues and we don't have further updates to offer at this time."
Target first opened the Food + Future lab in January 2016 with MIT Media Labs and the design firm Ideo as partners. It has been exploring a number of ideas including building indoor farms inside of stores and was at one point planning to test one at Target's store near Fenway Park in Boston.
Target employs about 10 full-time workers at the Massachusetts lab. A handful of other positions are funded by partners or contractors.
As Target's sales have been on the decline in the last year and after a disappointing holiday, CEO Brian Cornell has been reining in the retailer's big-thinking innovation agenda to refocus on the core business. In January, Target halted a store-of-the-future concept being built in Silicon Valley and killed a secretive start-up project called Goldfish, which was to be an online marketplace.
In the future, Target said, it will tie its innovation efforts more closely to its major strategic initiatives.
Cornell said at an online retail conference last month that Target can't afford to invest in projects that don't see a tangible return within the next few years.
He also unveiled Target's next-generation store prototype to open outside of Houston this fall. It will feature a different floor plan than is currently in stores and will include two different entrances — one that highlights apparel and home decor while the other is more aimed at quick trips for grocery and picking up online orders.
That store will be a possible template for hundreds of store remodels Target will invest in over the next few years as part of its efforts to rejuvenate the business. Target executives also recently told investors that they will lower prices and launch about a dozen new or refreshed private-label brands to help kick-start sales.
The Food + Future lab was an outgrowth of Target's entrepreneur-in-residence program, which was spearheaded by Casey Carl, Target's chief innovation and strategy officer. In 2015. he brought in three executives who had built brands or worked within big retail companies to help Target brainstorm new, outside-the-box business ideas.
One of the three entrepreneurs, Greg Shewmaker, a former executive with the international grocer Tesco, set up the food lab as a way to explore how Target could stay on top of and help pioneer more transparency in the food system. Food accounts for about a quarter of Target's overall sales.
"We know less about our food we eat today than at any other time in our history period," Shewmaker told the Star Tribune last year.
The lab worked on several projects including one in which they piloted bringing "PolyBots," or hydroponic plant-growing systems in transparent boxes, to classrooms in White Bear Lake and Boston to bolster curricula for children around how food is grown.
In another program, it scanned thousands of food items using spectrometers in two of Target's warehouses — one in Lake City, Fla. and the other in Cedar Falls, Iowa — to create a database that could be used to help retailers better determine freshness in its supply chain.
Last spring, the Food + Future team tested other ideas in a handful of stores, such as a proposed new brand incubated at the food lab called Good & Gather where ingredients were prominently displayed on the front of packaging rather than buried in small print on the back. They also put up signs above some items in the produce department about when those fruits had arrived in stores, charging 50 cents more for strawberries that arrived that day vs. a week ago. Those tests took place at Target's stores in Edina, Minnetonka, Boston and San Francisco.
Good & Gather went through Target's Techstars accelerator program last summer as an internal start-up and changed its name to Obvious Foods and its focus to reimagining kids' lunches. The concept is still under development at Target.
Target's Techstars program, which also grew out of the entrepreneur-in-residence program, remains intact and will host its second class of start-ups this summer. The retailer also continues to support Open House, an experimental store in San Francisco that highlights connected home products.