5 companies leading the way in datafood — and why we believe radical change is needed in the food-system

Gone are the days when data science was strictly the domain of the data scientist, engineer or technologist. We’ve moved forward to the age of the data entrepreneur, and with that mindset, into collaboration with businesses at the intersection of innovation. Most days you’ll find me here, the mediator and advisor between data scientists, analysts, business leaders and innovators. For me, it’s the sweet spot — helping find solutions to real world problems, and discovering opportunities for growth.

It’s also afforded me a wide (and growing) knowledge of various industries — from professional boxing to transport, energy and urban planning. But as you might know, I especially focus on the food and agriculture space, and I’m continually surprised at the level of creativity and determination towards bettering the industry that I see. Here are 5 companies leading the way in #datafood — here in the Netherlands, and beyond — and why.

Connecterra

I’ve known Connecterra for a very long time now, and they really are a progressive example of how combining AI and humans (mostly farmers) can help create a more humane and profitable food system. Since the beginning of JADS we have been working with Sicco van Pier Gosliga (Head of R&D) in our Data Entrepreneurship in Action program. This collaboration turned more formal when Sicco became a JADS fellow this year.

Through their AI technology, named Ida, Connecterra are helping dairy farms run 30% more efficiently. And they really aren’t trying to replace the role of humans with technology, but rather, dub Ida as a ‘farmer’s assistant’ — effectively helping and elevating the role of the farmer.

“We innovate for a purpose. Our core competency is building AI’s that will impact the future of our planet,” says Connecterra.

So how does it work? By using monitoring tools like sensor cubes that go each cow’s neck, and machine learning technology. Ida monitors and learns the behaviour of farmers and dairy cows, sending the data to the cloud for processing and analysing, before providing guidance on how to function more effectively. Of course, these insights — patterns, trends and correlations — have a flow on effect, including reducing the environmental impact of livestock farming, and maintaining the livelihood of farmers.

Not only are Connecterra saving time and dollars for the dairy farming industry, they’re helping to boost animal welfare, which can lead to a better tasting product. Their data management software monitors milk production, as well as how regularly a cow needs veterinary attention. Over time, with Ida and machine learning, insights aid cost offsetting and animal care decisions.

They explain: “In other industries, deploying artificial intelligence like this is “predictive maintenance.” Take a factory’s machines. Diagnostics identify when a bearing needs repacking, or a seal replacing, suggesting action before the part fails. By extending those same principles to cattle health — mastitis, for example — we are alerted before problems become serious. Prevention is better than cure.”

Sicco van Pier Gosliga, R&D director Connecterra

Het Familie Varken

Similarly, a happy family of pigs living their best life together is what drives Het Familie Varken. Keeping it close to home and focused on ethical farming, they’re currently building their first ethical stable in Boekel, North Brabant. “It started with the question: can we offer pigs a pleasant life in a pigsty? Because pigs also experience stress. And that is neither pleasant nor healthy!”

A real collaboration, they’re working with pig farmers, scientists, technologists, architects and builders, food supplier and genetics, to create an environment for pigs that is stress-free. The driving force is director Tjacko Sijpkens, one of the most inspirational leaders you’ll meet, in my opinion. No one has put it more succinctly than Tjacko; “The food industry has lost its mandate from society as a whole, to supply food. Full stop. The food industry needs radical change.”

How do they know their pigs are happy? They’ve done a considerable amount of research along with Inonge Reimert of Wageningen University, who has been studying pig behaviour for years. Techniques include gathering data through filming the pigs and taking photos of the family pigs’ faces at regular intervals — because their facial expressions change if they are stressed, just as a humans’ faces do.

Through their data entrepreneurship and a strong mandate to work closely with nature, Het Familie Varken are paving the way as an industry leader.

“The natural behavior of the pig is central in our design. We believe that nature is our best friend and by itself a very intelligent system, knowing best about vitality and growing. Data will help capture this valuable knowledge,” Tjacko Sijpkens, CEO Het Familie Varken.

“The sort of data & sensors in the farm are all concentrated on animal behavior, conversion & growth, and all sorts of living conditions. Key to this data gathering will be the developed ear tag that measures 24/7 every movement of every pig.

“We are also keen on cross linking the data with our consortium partners through the total value chain (genetics-food-farm-butcher-retail-consumer). The leader of the industry is the one who best knows about these interrelations and how to market them to the consumer.”

No doubt their pigs are living happy lives as nature intended. And when it comes to the consumer, much like Connecterra, Het Familie Varken recognise the positive impact a happy animal’s life has on the quality and taste of the meat it produces.

Protix

Still in the farming realm, this one, frankly, could be a game changer. Protix is for the planet, and their focus is on working towards a circular food system — one that’s in balance with nature (there’s a real theme here). And the driving force of the system? Insects.

Touted by some as the food of the future, Protix is innovating farming as we know it, using data science and “verifiable and scalable insect breeding” to create a humane, sustainable food system for the future.

Insects are unique. As Protix says, they’re “powerful upcyclers and the missing link in our food system.” They also “have the amazing ability to turn low-grade food waste into valuable high-end proteins and fats.” And they can do this fast, with a low impact on resources (one tonne of insects can be grown in six days using a land area of only 20 square metres). In comparison, traditional farming for sources of protein such as meat and soy use up much larger amounts of water and land, having a great impact on ecosystems. So, the benefits are many and diverse.

A key player in Protix’s vision is the black soldier fly. The fly’s larvae provide a unique source of protein for food and feed. Then, not only can insects become part of a high-protein, healthy and fair diet for humans, when they die, they become part of a circular food chain — sustainable (and still high-protein) animal foodstock for fish and chickens. In the case of the chicken, this also leads to better tasting eggs, and allows the chicken to return to more natural behaviour — again, bringing in the added element of animal welfare.

Managing all of this takes dedicated partners, along with high-tech farming solutions, AI, genetic improvement programs and robotics. This technology helps Protix produce consistently, at the right quality and with reliable output — factors that are key to really changing the food system (giving a new meaning to strength in numbers).

Who’d have thought insects (and smart data) could be the solution? Brilliant.

Kishan Vasani, Co-Founder & CEO at Spoonshot

Spoonshot

Companies like Spoonshot are also in a league of their own — this time enhancing the customer experience through guest intelligence and taste insights. They use AI to predict consumer taste and food trends through food science, helping companies stay informed, relevant and competitive.

Their insights also aid company product development — helping food and beverage businesses unlock new opportunities for the future, which can enhance customer engagement, satisfaction and retention. Beyond collecting customer feedback and sentiment, Spoonshot are now offering a Beta version of their Genesis tool (to be released this June), a platform designed “to be the creative spark for early stage innovation, ideation and inspiration for FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) companies.”

The power here is in prediction.

“The technology behind the platform leverages a unique data set and proprietary algorithms to help FMCG companies stay on top and ahead of trends. The platform provides personalised insights, where our predictions present innovation opportunities, and where novelty is the driving force powering insights,” says Co-Founder and CEO Kishan Vasani.

Kishan explains the data gathering process: “Essentially, we leverage a long-tail of open, alternative data. That’s everything from regional food news portals to specialist research institutions. From this, we build proprietary structured data sets, connecting this data using machine learning, drawing signals and casualty. With these knowledge repositories, our goal is to ultimately replicate human cognition in the domain of food.

“The purpose of Genesis is to assist in a process leading to more successful product innovation. Essentially, bringing a closer alignment between consumer needs and the choices they are presented with. Other benefits address the needs of the FMCG companies themselves, such as being able to make sense of noise in data, and being given early indicators of future trends.”

Consider flavour combinations that product designers and innovators might not have thought of yet — what are they, and would anyone be interested? Spoonshot’s example involves Nutella and soy. Perhaps they could be looking at where insects are in demand or abundance next?

August de Vocht, CEO NoFoodWasted

NoFoodWasted

This one seems like a no-brainer to me. An app that maps products approaching their expiration date, noting what level of discount is available — saving customers money while reducing food waste. NoFoodWasted engages both restaurants and supermarkets looking to act more responsibly, and they already have over 150 participating retailers.

How does it work?

“NoFoodWasted was the first company to use data to change the behavior of consumers to reduce food waste. Because of the inventorization we made of the available best before date products, we knew exactly what was available at different local supermarkets closest to our users. This combined with insights on the grocery list 75% of consumers make, gave us great insight to help change consumers buying behaviour — from purchasing products with a long shelf life to those that are nearing the end of their best before date,” says Founder August de Vocht.

The app uses sensors from mobile phones to gain insights on food waste from connected suppliers and consumers. This includes beacon technology and AI, and they’re planning to implement more computer science in the backend to make the app even smarter.

“Smarter in terms of aligning better with what the market wants, what the market wants to pay, and what producers’ needs are.”

The team is also working on a solution to indicate how much food the consumer is using and how much they need.

“When we have the complete data on what the customer needs, we can bring this information to the market so that we all can produce less food, and that is the only solution against food waste.” August de Vocht, CEO NoFoodWasted

There you have it — just 5 of the companies making waves in the datafood space. I’m certain these innovators are onto something good, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it — working on real life case studies through the JADS Data Science and Entrepreneurship program and in our Proof of Concept lab.

This article is written in collaboration with Jai Morton.

Life is beautiful. Personally I think moderation is key. Also with Twitter. I hardly ever read my dms. he/him — @seldondigital @jadatascience @vaartsoftware