France and the US lead the food tech revolution
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While Silicon Valley cooks up eggless mayonnaise and salt without sodium, French entrepreneurs are doing away with supermarkets. Despite traditionally opposing approaches to food, the US and France are allied in a quest to modernise the way we eat.
As food becomes one of the tech scene’s fastest growing areas, entrepreneurs around the world are innovating to meet consumers’ demands for fresher, ethical and more environmentally friendly foodstuffs.
Two countries leading the revolution make an unlikely duo when it comes to sitting down to dinner, but the US and France have plenty to learn from each other when it comes to the production, delivery and consumption of food.
This month, a team of food tech experts from French firm ‘33entrepreneurs’ -- described by founder Vincent Prêtet as “the world’s first accelerator (similar to venture capitalists) dedicated to food, wine and hospitality startups” -- is making a nine-stop bus tour across the United States and Canada to allow innovative food and winegroups to pitch their concepts to entrepreneurs, influencers, investors and the media. The group will also select the top innovator from each stop of the tour to participate at the final stage of the competition.
Competition is tough. Some 500 fledgling companies are competing to spend three months with 33entrepreneurs at their headquarters in Bordeaux.
33entrepreneurs partner Kevin Camphuis says the draw is not only because food and drink industries “are of French essence,” but because France is ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation.
Despite an enduring reputation as idle or bound by red tape, French entrepreneurs have outfoxed their European counterparts for several consecutive years with the continent's fastest-growing technology companies.
“Innovators want to come to France because we are much more open-minded than elsewhere in Europe,” 33entrepreneurs’ Camphuis told FRANCE 24. "France has traditionally been a very centralised, institution-guided country, but after the financial crisis we became very open to change,” he said.
Modernising slow food
Far from America’s most illustrious foodtech leaders, which include the “foodless” meals of Soylent, sugarless candy and dairyless cheese, as well as delivery apps that have succeeded in almost eradicating restauranter-client interaction, the projects picked by Prêtet’s team seem more suited to a French approach to food -- that means real cooking, organic ingredients, and plenty of wine.
Competition in New York, the first stop on the tour, included “smart recipe” software, YumvY, which not only walks you through your meal preperation interactively (timers included), but will eventually turn on your oven at the right time, all from your mobile phone or desktop. Tipsi is an app that acts as a personal sommelier on your phone, lest you embarrass yourself at the restaurant, or are just eager to learn. And BYOB, another wine-centric project, will tell you which wine store in your neighbourhood stocks the wine you’re drinking at the restaurant, just by snapping the label.
The winning project at the New York leg of the contest was software that tells you what to make for dinner if you tell it what you have in the fridge. Eventually you won’t even need to tell Supercook what you have -- it will integrate your in-store purchases directly onto your account when you use your loyalty card at the supermarket. The scheme saves time, food waste and consequently, money.
Cofounder Keith Cooperman said that what gives the edge to Supercook, in comparison with other recipe apps, is its environmental credentials. “Attacking food waste is where we find our most evangelical followers,” Cooperman told FRANCE 24. “Global starvation, population growth, greenhouse gases, deforestation, all while we’re throwing away 40 percent of the food we produce -- what if we can reclaim that?”
Like Supercook, many American schemes are remodelling US consumption towards a structure that many French people would find less novel than their American counterparts. Shorter distances from farm to table, organic, free-range meat, and home cooking are all practices that have endured in modern France, while processed food and mass consumption took over elsewhere, creating dietary, environmental, and waste disposal crises.
Camphuis believes that France’s success as a leader in food tech was inevitable because of, rather than in spite of, its conservative nature in relation to agriculture and cooking.
“The way we understand food is totally different from the way Americans think about it,” he told FRANCE 24. “For many Americans, food is fuel. So food innovation in the US can be very functional and thus very visible.”
“For a French person, food means love, pleasure, gathering around a table. Innovation for us is about improving the experience that you share, about the quality of what you prepare, the time and ease it takes, and how to access a larger variety of good quality ingredients.”
Speaking at La French Touch tech conference in New York last month, Camphius highlighted a thriving French initiative that links farmers and producers directly with customers, effectively cutting out the middleman, or supermarket. The scheme, called “La ruche qui dit oui,” (or The Food Assembly) has been so successful that in 2014 it expanded to the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy, and in June it received a $9 million boost from US investors. In the US however, similar projects are largely state-initiated and have yet to take off in the same way.
“La ruche qui dit oui is doing something different, unique something that nobody in the US has done, at least successfully,” investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures told Tech Crunch in June, predicting that the company will likely expand to the US.
“France has certainly been inspiring the US,” Camphuis said. “But in France, we’re also inspired by the Americans.”
Nutrition awareness, for example, which is commonplace (if not obsessed over) in the US, remains glaringly absent in France (many people are vague in their understanding of a carbohydrate).
And yet, one of France’s successful new startups is focused squarely on supplements. Pointing to common vitamin deficiencies, Bloomizon promises to lengthen your life, improve your health, even to help you live out your dreams, with its personalised vitamin delivery for around a euro a day.
France is also making waves on the biotechnology front, as a leader in developing insect consumption for humans, pets and livestock. Ynsect has raised more than seven million euros and hopes to start producing on a commercial scale this year... in the heartland of red meat.
French innovators might meet more resistance to change than their US counterparts, but Camphuis is convinced that the country is moving on.
“Any disruption generates friction,” he said. “But the old world has to accept it. It will pass.”