Perspectives on sustainability and wellbeing are changing in response to health and environmental challenges, offering an opportunity to university-linked businesses.

A barrier to achieving sustainability in food production is that the term means different things to different people. Whereas sustainability is often thought of in purely environmental terms, for farmers an agricultural process cannot ultimately be sustainable unless it protects their livelihood. As a society, we demand transparency about the origins of our food and, as a result, should expect extra costs as standards are tightened. Customers nonetheless continue intuitively to source the cheapest produce.

Economic orthodoxy in agriculture is not as widespread as some would imagine, particularly when it comes to profit-maximising considerations such as managing inputs, according to Bruno Basso, a foundation professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences of Michigan State University (MSU), whose research areas include agronomy and soil science.

As it is difficult to judge how much fertiliser needs to be used, farmers often deploy more to be sure, with negative implications for the environment. Even with the arrival of new agricultural technologies, the habit can be difficult to change.

“This is something that I personally struggled with myself with farmers, making them understand that often profitability means the profit coming from reduced input,” Basso said. “Farmers still manage for yield, they manage for increased production and as the inputs are still low in terms of cost, they still use them as insurance against possible losses.”

Basso’s research in the area, which led to the formation of MSU spinout Cibo Technologies in 2014, epitomises how the agtech industry is trying to reconcile often contradictory expectations of sustainability.

Cibo sells virtual farm simulation systems based on a complex process-based crop simulation model able to capture the effects of the interactions of soil properties, climate, genotype characteristics and agronomic management on crop growth, and environmental impact in a given set of conditions.

Rather than relying on sensors on the ground, Cibo regards the plant itself as the result of a network of factors, from moisture levels to management practices, that inform its growth path.

Basso claimed the inspiration came from tech-savvy farmers working with a major sensor manufacturer, who said they needed more effective insights from technology. “[The farmers said] we need something that will lead to something worth the time and money to invest in sensors. So they said they would like help in making sense of this so-called big data – back then they were flooded with information, and these were the farmers who actually knew more than most technologically.”

Cibo repurposed an existing management ethos, known as the system approach, that stresses how different factors interact and depend on each other. Applying the concept to agriculture, the result was a model that tracks each plant’s interaction with external factors, such as soil quality, from day to day.

The technology is now available under licence, and while it is not being marketed to farmers directly, Basso believes it should provide greater insight into which agricultural management practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions while promoting soil health and carbon sequestration.

It grew enough legs to bring Cibo Technologies $30.2m in its series B round in March 2017. Investors swinging behind the spinout include Flagship Pioneering, whose VentureLabs incubator helped build the business, and sustainability-focused investment manager Generation Investment Management.

Basso said: “The simulation and being able to relate with the system approach allows one critical thing. It transfers the ability to understand what happens in one field, or what happens to 90 million acres of corn. What if I inject 100kg or so of fertiliser, versus 45kg or 150kg?

“Would the yield change, or would it cause more environmental impact without any economic return? Results change depending on various factors, and the model accounts for those factors and their interactions. And that is the ultimate goal of sustainability – it is what farmers often do not have a clear understanding of. They want to know what the risk is if they use 45kg or more, and what is the response.”

For Basso, the key lies in transferring the knowledge collected by novel technologies – food producers must be able to access the information in useful terms. The same rationale could unlock a host of advances in precision agriculture, allowing producers to meet the demands of the environment and more conscientious buyers.

Such technologies are also poised for impact on the consumer side of food sustainability. Basso gave the example of tracer systems, which track a food product’s route through the supply chain. Consumers can be sure the best ingredients have been used, while production houses can reallocate the surplus to other products, saving resources in the process. The main question is one of price, Basso argued, as none of these technological changes will be cheap to implement.

“People always want to have everything with no additional cost. That is important to address. Do we want to reduce the income of the farmers because they pollute, so they have to take action to reduce that? As a consumer, are we willing to pay for that?

“And that is where government policies come in. Europe is ahead of the game with the Rural Development Plan. The US is not quite there. They are starting to do a lot of this work, but the question has to be are we willing to pay for it all. Are we willing to be less hypocritical?”


Bayer’s university links

University expertise in agriculture is demonstrated by collaborations with life sciences firm Bayer, now fresh from the acquisition of agribusiness Monsanto in May 2018 which brought the Growth Ventures corporate venturing unit.

Bayer’s academic tie-ups include a branch of its agriculture and foodtech-focused CoLaborator incubator launched with University of California (UC) Davis in March 2018.

The initiative is already home to three businesses – ultra violet light plant nurturing technology developer Biolumic, vineyard cultivation microbiome startup Biome Makers, and Joyn Bio, a sustainable agriculture partnership between Bayer and microbe engineering company Ginkgo Bioworks, according to Christi Dixon, spokeswoman for Bayer.

Bayer also has an agreement in place to source potential CoLaborator tenants from UC Davis’s Venture Catalyst spinout support initiative, further strengthening its links to the university’s ecosystem.

Elsewhere, the corporate’s crop science division has announced a tie-up with Ben-Gurion University of Negev focused on applying local drip-irrigation technology DripByDrip to administer one of its crop protection products.

Dixon said: “According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, population growth and environmental degradation are the biggest threats to humankind. Now more than ever, the world needs innovative modern agricultural solutions to address the challenges facing our food system. There has never been a more important time for innovation in agriculture.”

She added that Growth Ventures – now Bayer Growth Ventures– was excited to pick up the work of its Monsanto-owned precursor alongside Bayer’s existing vehicle, Leaps by Bayer, in light of the estimated $8bn of VC investment poured into agriculture and food startups in 2017.

It should be noted CoLaborator is operated independently of Bayer Growth Ventures.

Dixon added: “We are eager to partner companies making a difference in agriculture. We are seeking the innovative ideas being developed outside our four walls – and sometimes outside the agriculture industry. Ideally we stay close to the work of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to identify emerging ideas quickly.”


Nutrition

Changing attitudes to food has also been a driver of innovation in nutrition. While diet has long been known to influence health, it seems the importance of living healthily is rapidly climbing the agenda. Nutrition has become a central tenet in the school of preventative healthcare, and some of the most promising research in the area stems from universities, particularly where it comes to applying modern technologies for nutritional and wellness purposes.

One example is the recent formation of Food, Genes and Me from University of Nevada Las Vegas, which is using genetic information supplied by consumers to provide tailor-made dietary recommendations, part of a research field often termed nutrigenetics.

Martin Schiller, creator of the project and executive director of Nevada Institute of Personalised Medicine, said while the science behind nutrigenetics remained relatively underexplored, there was a sizeable opportunity given the logical connection between genes, disease and diet.

“It is an unbelievably unexplored area. The reason is funding and difficulty with nutrition studies – there is just no large agency like the US National Institutes of Health, or the UK’s Medical Research Council, that funds nutrition genetics research. Because of that the study sizes tend to be small and what is called underpowered, where even when you get a result you only have a certain amount of confidence in it.

“The reason we know there is a large opportunity here is a scientific metric called heritability, which scientists use to estimate what proportion of a human disease, behaviour or other condition is associated with genetics, and what percentage comes from the environment.

“When you look at common things like diabetes or Alzheimer’s and nutrition, on average about half of it is due to heritability, so it is based on genetics. Based on that general observation there is a huge chance here to use a person’s genetics to tailor diets, but many think the science is just getting started in this area.”

One of the project’s strengths is that it is compatible with consumer-facing genetic testing and analysis already available through platforms such as 23andMe. The net effect should be consumers can easily receive more personalised information than general nutritional targets, perhaps sparking earlier remedial action.

Schiller said the concept was one of a number plugging into consumer genetic testing platforms to attain deeper insights. Food Genes and Me is also attempting to build an ecosystem around the data it collects, by offering free tests to customers who consent to their information being used for scientific research.

“What we are doing is taking a survey and then saying to people: ‘We will give you a free personalised diet report, but in return let us see your DNA file.’ We will engage with them by writing a blog and keeping them really involved in the genetic space but will also be using their data. As we get more members joining, we are going to be able to use a more modern approach to genetics called a genetic risk score – and this is not really doable out of the public domain in any serious way at present.

“All of the science being done over the past two years points to common things – like nutrition or diabetes and other common disorders – really needing a multi-faceted genetic risk score rather than detection of single mutations.

“What we are doing is collecting the data. And in a very precise manner we are going to have a matrix, with categories of health conditions on the Y axis and potential dietary and nutrition changes on the X axis. For that higher matrix, we are calculating a genetic risk score for each category so we can reliably take a person’s DNA and say: ‘Here are the major correlations we found, so for you to prevent these diseases you need these interventions.’

Another company hoping to spark interest in nutrition assessments based on individual genetics is Toronto-founded Nutrigenomix.

Rather than target consumers directly, Nutrigenomix is relying on business from healthcare professionals and clinics, to which its genetic profiling kit is marketed. The service tests for 45 genetic markers related to elements of lifestyle, including nutrient metabolism, cardiometabolic health and food intolerance. University of Toronto has a series of research projects related to food, including a wide-ranging initiative focused on its biological and health impact.

Jennifer Fraser, director of innovations in the innovations and partnerships office of University of Toronto, said: “The goal of this research program is to elucidate the role of these foods in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity, and regulatory aspects related to their use in Canada.”

Elena Comelli, associate professor in University of Toronto’s department of nutritional sciences, is studying how diet and the intestinal microbiota interact in early life to sustain long-term health, including abnormalities linked to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Collectively known as the gut microbiome, these microbes have become one of the most intriguing frontiers of biology-orientated nutrition research.

Due to its involvement with the immune system and metabolic processes, the gut microbiome plays a crucial role in human health, with diet and nutrition known to influence its development. As researchers discover more gut microbiome mechanisms specifically tuned to influencing human disease, the commercialisation of gut flora-boosting probiotic products is likely to gain momentum.

In addition to genomics, advances in machine learning have also led to the commercialisation of other nutritional applications. FitGenie, a nutrition prediction engine founded by Georgia Tech graduates, is among the startups in this area. It provides customers with a machine learning-powered “smart calorie counter” that automatically adjusts calorific targets based on personal information and predictive forecasts.

The business, which had 21,000 users by August 2017, has been through Georgia Tech’s Create-X startup accelerator, a faculty-led initiative offering students training in areas such as product design and procuring capital that has spawned 115 businesses since launching in 2014.

Raghupathy Sivakumar, founding director of Create-X and the Wayne J Holman professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said: “FitGenie was certainly one of the top startups Create-X worked with in the 2016 cohort. They were passionate about their startup and exhibited all the traits we look for in entrepreneurs – passion, curiosity, customer-focus, hustle and adaptability.”

Create-X is supporting a number of other startups in the nutrition and sustainability space, Sivakumar said, including vertical farming technology developer Replantable, water-testing services provider TruePani and nootropic supplement drink supplier Synapse.

Finding the right entrepreneurial strategy will be crucial for many nutrition applications. Schiller of University of Nevada Las Vegas argues that the field still lacks government funding compared with more established branches of medicine, and experts will instead have to engage the wider population with innovative business models.

“If you look at human disease over the past four millennia, there have been two major bumps where our life expectancy and quality of life have jumped drastically.

“Until the industrial revolution, life expectancy was only 30 years. But at that point, where we controlled sanitation and created a stable food supply, that drastically increased the life expectancy of the average human. With the molecular medical sciences that started with the turn of the 20th century this happened again, and for the past 50 years life expectancy has increased rapidly.

“I suspect the next major influence on this is preventing disease, not treating disease. Nutrition is a key part of that because it is clear in a lot of cases that a nutritional intervention will prevent a lot of diseases – the research we have done in the genetics space proves that this is going on.”


Wellness

Healthy living generally involves food, mind and exercise, so it seems apt to touch briefly on these other sides of the equation.

Using the health and fitness-orientated accelerator M-1 Ventures as a springboard, BurnAlong has reached the market with an online platform connecting customers with fitness and wellness classes offered through video chat. M-1 Ventures’ affiliates include Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and UM Ventures, the tech transfer office of University of Maryland system.

Like some of its nutrition-focused peers, BurnAlong deploys artificial intelligence technology to drive customer engagement, using machine learning algorithms to tailor recommendations ranging from high-intensity workouts to meditation supplied by its affiliated fitness centres and professionals.

The company, which had assembled about $4.7m of funding from backers including Johns Hopkins by November 2018, also supports social interaction through its platform to encourage friends and co-workers to work out together.

Initially orientated around exercise, BurnAlong is now aiming to build a more holistic wellness service, with additional programs centred on nutrition, chronic conditions and financial discipline.

Working along similar lines is India-based CureFit Healthcare, which received $25m in an August 2017 round backed by the UC-RNT Fund established by University of California in partnership with Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of conglomerate Tata Sons.

CureFit’s wellness apps connect to its own kitchens and fitness centres, engaging its Indian customers through a mixture of online and offline channels. It has expanded strongly since the 2017 round and now operates in four cities, with the launch of bespoke apps dealing with different strands of exercise and wellness. Though UC-RNT was reportedly absent, CureFit nonetheless secured $120m for its series C round last August co-led by VC firms IDG Ventures, Kalaari Capital and Accel Partners, according to the Economic Times.


A bright future

Many attractive applications could be in store thanks to technologies ranging from genetic analysis to machine learning, and universities are well placed considering the resources and expertise at their disposal.

Some applications may require innovative business models to circumvent shortcomings in government policy and demand-side behaviour, as Schiller and Basso pointed out. However, the incentive may prove too strong for investors to ignore, given the area’s increasing impact on consumers, healthcare and the environment.