How the food system became a great place for tech talent
by Gary Weihs, Managing Partner
Technology innovation is driving massive change in the way we feed the world and keep it healthy. It’s also transforming our organizations faster than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago.
From seed and soil, to farms, to manufacturers and factories, to grocery stores and restaurants, and all the way to the dinner table, our organizations face an expanding need not just to keep up with tech innovation, but also to push the boundaries and stay ahead of the competition.
What will the future look like? What kind of talent will keep our organizations relevant? How can we identify and attract the right mix of technology-minded people needed for our organizations to succeed going forward?
Using Technology to Feed and Sustain the World
We’re in one of the most exciting times I’ve seen in my career. For just about any hunger or sustainability challenge the world faces, there’s a technology effort underway to solve it. The food system has become one of the best places for technology related people to pursue their careers.
Here are just a few examples of what’s happening:
To advance earth-friendly farming, innovative companies are using IoT sensors, robotics, drones, livestock wearables, and autonomous equipment to enable new levels of precision agriculture.
One of our clients, Resson, helps growers better understand crops, save time and money, and produce greater yields using the latest advancements in computer vision, machine learning, and big data analytics. Their data-driven approach integrates data from satellites, drones, close-proximity cameras, and in-field sensors to scout every part of a field and detect, classify and geo-locate anomalies, pests, and diseases all the way down to individual plants, before human eyes can detect them.
Another client, Cool Planet, is a leader in extracting hydrocarbons from biomass. They’ve developed a biochar-based soil amendment product that improves soil health, allowing it to retain nutrients and moisture while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and producing higher yields. The technology can also be used in compost, animal feed, and animal bedding to address environmental issues with large poultry, dairy, and feedlot operations.
For food safety, blockchain and other digital technologies allow us to monitor goods and products all the way through the food chain. By connecting growers, processors, distributors, and retailers through a shared record of food system data, they offer unprecedented visibility and accountability in the food supply.
To improve global nutrition while protecting the environment, biotechnology scientists are producing lab-grown meat, plant-based seafood, and even custom foods engineered for a specific individual’s biome, preferences, and lifestyle. And, gene editing scientists are working with nature’s own tools to improve the flavor, digestibility, and nutritional value of common foods we eat every day.
We’ve had the opportunity to work closely with the food ingredient company Calyxt, currently the best funded food tech startup in history. Calyxt’s mission is to improve the quality of food by producing healthy products and a transparent path between farmers and customers. Calyxt uses an advanced plant selection process developed at the University of Minnesota to precisely emphasize or suppress existing genes within a crop’s genome to more quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively reach a desired outcome to benefit consumers. These same outcomes could occur naturally over a longer period of time using traditional trait-development and plant breeding methods.
To reduce food waste, smartphone apps and dynamic pricing software solutions help individuals and retailers reduce food waste in homes and supermarkets. Other companies, such as our client Apeel Sciences, are using nature’s own approach to preventing spoilage in the first place. Apeel uses the building blocks of plants’ own skins to create preservative sprays that can quadruple produce shelf life and dramatically reduce food waste.
What This Means for Talent
In the past, our organizations wouldn’t naturally pursue data scientists, machine learning engineers, or similar leading-edge technology experts. But today, there are significant opportunities for tech talent across the food chain. For decades, organizations across the food chain had to work hard to attract these individuals away from service, technology, or industrial companies. That’s changing rapidly as we see heightened interest and investment in the food chain:
Roberto Vinton of Valoral Advisors estimates that the number of investment firms specializing in food and agriculture and managing $73 billion in assets increased from 38 in 2005 to 440 in 2017.
AgFunder’s Agrifood Tech Investing Report reveals that “in 2017, agrifood tech investment reached $10.1B across 924 deals, a 29 percent year-over-year increase in funding volume.”
And last year set a record for this decade for venture investment in food and agriculture technology. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, venture capitalists had invested more than $2 billion in the industry by mid-September 2018, compared with about $1.5 billion annually in 2016 and 2017 (source: PitchBook Platform data provider).
As a result, top talent is coming to us, wanting a seat at our table. The challenge has shifted away from being able to compete for this talent. Now, the trick is knowing how to identify and match the right talent to an organization’s specific need.
At Kincannon & Reed, our mission is to recruit leaders who feed the world and keep it healthy, and we’re pleased to have developed a sophisticated process that reliably identifies the top leadership talent our clients need.
We have the benefit of a sophisticated research team and a global team of principals who possess executive-level experience in the sectors we serve and bring deep perspective and expertise to each search.
For each search, we begin by identifying the most logical, experienced people on the planet, starting with our own proprietary database of nearly 150,000 individuals. We might review 500 profiles before we choose 150 or so to reach out to. Ultimately, we recommend 10 to 12 individuals for client consideration. The client then selects three to five finalists for a full day of interviews and ultimately selects one. We communicate the final decision, and we do it all confidentially.
We’ve followed this process for 37 years, and we have a less than one percent failure rate in the first year. It’s an exciting process that often results in very special placements, adding tremendous value to our clients.
The Proverbial Needle in a Haystack
Some years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation charged us with finding a specific leader to support their goal of eliminating animal disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. They sought an animal geneticist, born in one of these regions, who knew firsthand what it was like to be hungry.
We conducted a broad search that looked at the world of animal health. Ultimately, we identified an individual who was the head of animal health at Pfizer. Originally from Sri Lanka, he was educated in the UK, held a Ph.D. in virology, and earned his executive MBA from Oxford. The Foundation hired him as their senior program officer for animal health. Today, he serves as a Foundation deputy director of global development.
Our Innovation Imperative
Organizations across the food chain are grappling with many challenges — regulatory and economic issues, food safety, supply chain management, waste reduction, and traceability — and that doesn’t even include competing for customer traffic, loyalty, and stomach share.
Our food ecosystem plans for the future will increasingly be built on technology and science, and we’ll need to attract and retain leaders who understand the changes taking place around us and are willing to pursue new ways to develop our organizations. If our organizations intend to grow, prosper, and remain relevant, there’s really no alternative.