Food Lab

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: The Daily Texan recently sat down with Robyn Metcalfe, director of The Food Lab. The Food Lab is based in the School of Human Ecology, and it provides awareness of food issues, encourages and motivates students to engage with innovative food systems research and helps support startups that leverage university research. 

The Daily Texan: Could you tell us about how you came up with the Food Lab concept and your thoughts when you first started?

Robyn Metcalfe: The Food Lab is a project currently located in the College of Natural Sciences within the School of Human Ecology. It’s really a project that engages broadly across the whole campus within a wide range of disciplines including history, engineering, architecture, anthropology, American studies and the sciences. It really engages the university in a conversation about the future of food. We have a couple of projects. One is the food challenge prize that took place Feb. 14. We are also doing some research on the relationship of cities and food and how food travels around the world — food logistics. We have a website and online magazine related to that. 

I moved here to Austin with my husband who’s also at UT [Bob Metcalfe, mentioned in Nick Spiller's column] about four years ago from Boston to Austin. My degree is in history with an emphasis on food history. So I’ve been involved in the food world for the past 30 years or so. So I’ve been involved in this for a long time, way before it was a popular subject, broadly speaking. And in one particular period of time there, I ran a working farm that was located in the state of Maine, and we raised heritage breeds of livestock — this was in the 1990s. So I’ve been involved in everything from cooking to developing products to starting farm ventures, looking at it from a wide variety of websites. 

DT: When it comes to healthy eating and sustainable food initiatives, popular media tends to focus only on organic and natural food. But the Food Lab has a broader focus. Could you talk about that broader focus?

Metcalfe: We really have an academic call, a systemic approach to food. It really is a big system. A successful, sustainable food system includes everything from soil, the inputs, the growing of it, the distribution of it, the packaging of it, the transportation of it, the formulation of it. And really any one part considered alone limits the opportunity for improvement. You really need to see the relationship between all these things, including human beings and their desire and love and identity and connectivity to food itself. You can have a wonderful idea for improving the food system and ignore consumer behavior or an individual’s memory and associations and emotional attachment to food. So it’s really the ultimate blend of art and science. It's the ultimate emotional, scientific, artistic pieces all coming together, and they need to come together to be really sustainable. So we’re not an activist organization. We don’t think you should only buy a certain type of food, or something is good and something is bad. We really are a conversation starter, not the answer, not the solution. We don’t want to step away from coming to a conclusion, but in the lab we’re really in an experimental thinking phase. 

DT: Do you have any main questions that guide your research?

Metcalfe: Our research is focusing on the whole idea that we make enough food but we don’t really get it in the right places. Some of the food isn’t in the best form. So waste is the current focus of the research in terms of looking at food distribution. We really feel like the storage and distribution area from a research point of view is really ripe for some new ideas, some new innovations. 

In the prize itself we’re being more even-handed. We really want to encourage a system consideration of food innovation. That’s why we consider the growing, storing, packing, eating and the actual healthy food itself. That’s why we have people in the competition itself looking at insects. There is a swarm of people looking at improving our options for protein by developing new protein sources such as crickets for example. Would you eat crickets by the way?

DT: We've never ordered them. 

Metcalfe: Would you be open to eating them?

DT: Maybe one day.

Metcalfe: I think what’s most exciting about food innovation is that Austin has been in the mind of many people as a very cool place for food with all its food trailers, for example. And this rising crop of new innovative chefs are gathering lots of attention. We really feel that Austin is on the verge of being known as a major player in food entrepreneurship and food innovation in general, including the food trucks and the chefs, but moving to a new level of highlighting how many people are trying to start new businesses and come up with new innovative ideas in the food space. So it would join in the ranks of Brooklyn, Silicon Valley, Napa Valley and we would have a hot spot here of food entrepreneurs. 

DT: How can students get involved in the Food Lab?

Metcalfe: If you’re curious about food, the Food Lab would be a great place to meet people who have built successful food businesses and see a range of people who are really enthusiastic about their ideas. You may never have thought that inventing a better cabbage or about 3D printing your food, or you might have a robot on your counter top that could produce your food in the future. Who knows? Students could intern or start their own business, so the Food Lab should ignite the imagination of a lot of students. 

Robyn Metcalfe

 

Photo Credit: Food Lab at UT | Daily Texan Staff

The University opened registration Sunday for the UT Food Lab Challenge, an international competition focused on the evolving food industry. 

Sponsored by the University’s Food Lab, the competition is centered on developing food industry startups, Robyn Metcalfe, lab director and human ecology lecturer, said. According to the University, applications will be accepted until Sept. 30, after which 20 finalists will be announced on Nov. 1. After the finalists are chosen, the 20 teams will be paired with mentors, who will provide feedback before the final presentation day on Feb. 14, 2015. Winners in each category will receive $5,000 and one team will receive the grand prize of $10,000.

Metcalfe said she has seen a growth in interest for food startups — especially from festivals like South By Southwest.

Metcalfe sees the competition as an opportunity to focus on the differences between most startups and businesses that are food-related since food is a perishable commodity, often controlled by government regulations.

“We really felt that, although there are common things food startups need to know in general about starting a business, there are some things really specific to food startups,” Metcalfe said. “We thought, first of all, igniting some interest around food startups was really important for that reason, and we can provide that kind of support for that kind of knowledge related to specific food startups.”

Daniel Heron, a UT alumnus who cofounded the Food Lab in 2012 with Metcalfe and still works with food startups at Tech Ranch in Austin, said he thinks the competition is a new opportunity for food entrepreneurs to get involved in the startup community and raise venture capital.

“I think it’s really cool because it’s focused on ‘How do we feed the city?’” Heron said. “It’s focused on the food system and how it refers to feeding urban populations, and that’s a very focused group.”

Metcalfe said that although Austin has numerous startup hubs, the Food Lab offers more tools for food-related entrepreneurial ideas in early development.

“The other thing is the idea came that, although there are numerous incubators and accelerators in Austin, what we can do is support really early stage startups. Those that are simply an idea,” Metcalfe said. “They don’t necessarily even have their long-term team assembled. They may not even have a good financial strategic plan, and we can help with that early stage.”

The competition is not restricted to students or those in Austin, and teams can be made of contestants from different countries.  

Nutrition junior Salima Bhimani said she likes the competition’s different themes — inputs and production, storages and distribution, healthy eating and food education and processing, packaging and safety — because of the flexibility it provides contestants.

“It’s a great way to get different ideas into the food industry,” Bhimani said. “Every individual has his own ideas, so it’s a cool way to acknowledge them.”