A new subsector of technology is emerging in the Boston area — and it revolves around the food supply chain, according to a report released Tuesday by Tufts University’s Food Nutrition Innovation Institute.
Food tech is a multibillion-dollar industry, and Massachusetts companies in the sector raised over $8 billion in capital from 2019 to 2022, according to the report. The local companies tend to be focused on modernizing the growth, distribution, and retail processes of food systems. And with its new report, the Tufts institute is looking to call attention to these companies and help create a hub and community around them.
Food tech encompasses tools and products from biotech, agricultural technology, robotics, software, and data science that support the food supply chain “from farm to fork,” as Katie Stebbins, executive director of the Food Nutrition Innovation Institute, puts it.
In Massachusetts, that means quite a wide range of companies, including well-known tech firms such as Toast, ezCater, and Ginkgo Bioworks. While Toast develops software and tools mainly for restaurants, Ginkgo spinoff Motif FoodWorks uses biotech to create plant-based proteins that consumers want to eat. Yet they are both working in the broader food industry.
“It’s not about inventing new foods. It’s about the technology — for example, automation, robotics, life sciences — that underpins what goes into creating a better food system,” Stebbins said.
The report categorizes food tech by five major sectors: agricultural technology, wholesale and retail, restaurants and food service, home and work, and entrepreneurship.
Stebbins describes food tech as a puzzle — each sector is one piece, and when all the pieces come together they form a sufficient, sustainable, and modernized food system. Artificial intelligence tools, for example, can help make the process more efficient.
“With the help of robots and AI, machines have the potential to impact the supply chain,” Fady Saad, general partner at venture capital firm Cybernetix Ventures General, said in a statement. The Tufts institute team “is paving the way for responsible corporates, committed investors, and innovative entrepreneurs to collaborate together to have an impact for generations to come,” he added.
The report highlights the recent growth of the food tech industry in Greater Boston, which includes 130 companies (by the Tufts institute’s definition) with over 13,000 employees worldwide, and about 4,500 of them based in Massachusetts. And with Boston’s large student population, there are opportunities for the industry to create jobs for students and graduates who are interested in agriculture, technology, and sustainability, the report said.
“The food system is notoriously home to some of the most dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs in the country,” Stebbins said. “And food tech, in my opinion, is unbelievably important in solving that problem, in creating jobs and pathways that people want to go towards and enjoy doing every day.”
The food supply system contributes to one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 report backed by the United Nations. So finding solutions to make the supply chain more sustainable is becoming increasingly important. And more tech companies are working on ways to decrease the food industry’s carbon footprint.
It’s not exactly clear how Boston’s food-tech industry compares to that of other major cities. But the report cites one difference between Massachusetts and other states: It claims that local companies cover more of the food supply chain rather than focusing on a concentrated sector like agriculture or retail.
The report also highlights some of the area’s emerging technology companies that work within the food-tech cluster, such as Tomorrow.io, a software and satellite company that provides accurate weather data to help farmers know the best times to plant and water their crops, and Symbotic, which creates warehouse robotics systems for Walmart.
“Boston and Massachusetts has this … strong new economic cluster that we should celebrate, grow, and use to attract more companies and more jobs,” Stebbins said. “And at the same time, [we can] create a better world for a more modern, safer, and sustainable food system.”