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At the Food + Future coLAB, dreaming big about changing the world

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A team at the Food + Future coLAB participates in a question-and-answer session about a placemat that tests for allergens.
A team at the Food + Future coLAB participates in a question-and-answer session about a placemat that tests for allergens.Lucia Small

When Greg Shewmaker was living in Hong Kong, working as a purchaser for retail giant Tesco, he had a problem: He didn't know Cantonese. Whenever he bought groceries, or ate out at restaurants, he had no way of knowing beforehand what he was about to consume. Every meal was a mystery.

But when he came back to the United States, he found himself standing in a grocery store, reading a list of ingredients in English — and realizing he had no more clue what they were than he would have if they'd been written in Chinese characters.

People in developed countries know more about the landscape of Pluto or the makeup of their smartphones than what's in their food, he said: "We know less about the food we eat today than any other time in history."

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So when Shewmaker was hired as entrepreneur-in-residence at Target last year — a nebulous gig that allows him to indulge in collaborations and blue-sky thinking — he decided to take a crack at the problem.

The result was the Food + Future coLAB, a joint project between Target, MIT's Media Lab, and Cambridge-based design firm IDEO. Its modest goal: Come up with viable startup ideas while broadly rethinking how humans grow, buy, and eat food.

For three weeks in January, teams of undergraduate interns, entrepreneurs, and food professionals, including one urban farmer, were given a broad theme: Understanding, for example, or Trust.

They consulted with innovators in the Media Lab — for instance, they were able to access MIT projects crunching Twitter traffic to find out what people talk about when they talk about food. (Bacon, as it turns out, evokes very strong emotions.) They also were able to consult with retail experts at Target, a resource that most startups wouldn't have, Shewmaker pointed out.

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Then each team spent the rest of the week coming up with startup ideas for products or services, designing websites, and launching demos.

The process could be a tad intense. "If you hear screaming in the background, it is fun going on," said IDEO's Matt Weiss. "People are having some sleepless nights, but they're inspired and engaged. . . . There's lots of nerding out, geeking out, going deep into technology and possibilities for new ventures."

The middle week's theme was Access, "a really gnarly topic," Weiss said. "There were a few teams who pivoted to another concept on Thursday morning, and were wearing the same clothes when they came in on Friday."

A maze of whiteboards in the lab bore witness to frenzied brainstorming, showing scribbled notes like "ISOLATE STORY OF FOOD" and "ETHICS — PROCESS — THROWING OUT CHICKEN."

In the end, proposals ranged from the elegantly simple (a website that rates restaurants by their food-sourcing ethics) to the cutting-edge (a spectograph-equipped placemat that tests for allergens) to the slightly sci-fi (an apron that sterilizes food workers' hands using UV light — unfortunately, not a technology that exists quite yet, its inventors conceded).

Other ideas covered health topics such as the human microbiome — "a startup that was about poop," said IDEO design director Nick DuPey — or social issues like urban food deserts. Then there were the robot beetles that could someday scuttle through fields, testing crops for ripeness and gleaning fallen fruit.

"Everybody has a different lens they're viewing food through, and how food relates to life, and we need to think about that with the designs we're creating," Weiss said.

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The next step, Shewmaker said, will be for IDEO and Target execs to mull over and refine the ideas that the groups came up with and figure out which ones might actually be viable.

In March, the Food + Future coLAB goes to phase two. Selected participants will be invited back for a longer session to "go much deeper into these concepts," Weiss said, and try to develop food ventures for Target.

Already, Shewmaker said, he's seen possibilities.

"I was thinking years out," he said. "But to my surprise, after the first week, there's some opportunities we can put into the world very quickly, like within months. Not necessarily industry-changing things, but pretty impactful things that can make people's lives better and safer." He's already thinking about repeating the program next year.

For Weiss, just participating has opened up hidden worlds. "It makes you think about everything you put in your mouth, that's for sure," he said.


S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at si@arrr.net. Follow her on Twitter @sirosenbaum.