Food Innovation: The Next Frontier of Entrepreneurship

The Steward School presents opportunities for students to change the world one vegetable at a time.

By: Cary Jamieson
Director of the Bryan Innovation Lab

Students begin their journey walking to the Bryan Innovation Lab among vegetables, herbs, and flowers. As they approach the building, frogs serenade them as bluebirds and yellow finches dart through the plants looking for insects. Students pop cherry tomatoes into their mouths as pre-class snacks; roll, smell, and taste fresh chocolate mint; and pluck flowers to perch behind their ears as they progress to class.

This has become part of the culture for an innovation center that is visited and explored locally and nationally. This intimacy with the garden and what grows and thrives within it provides much more than discovery of environment, health and wellness, and advocacy. The garden is a living lab that offers immersive and experiential education, and most importantly, a more familiar understanding of one of the largest growing industries in the world.

Once inside the Bryan Lab, students use a kitchen that has become a research and development lab for experimenting and testing new recipes, designing and building cooking equipment, and honing culinary skills. Students in junior kindergarten through grade 12 imagine themselves as young chefs, restaurateurs, and food industry entrepreneurs as they taste heirloom vegetables for the first time, make a working prototype of an oven using household materials, or develop new recipes (such as a harvest salad) to be featured at a local restaurant. These experiences grant our students a broader perspective and allow them to gain real world knowledge of the versatile opportunities that lie ahead in the food industry.

At the Bryan Lab, we recognize that the exploration of food innovation provides an opportunity for discussion and hands-on learning for our students. Through their time with us, they begin to understand the opportunities and challenges ahead for growing, producing, and distributing healthy and sustainable food sources. We discuss how, as the world’s population grows, demand for resources also grows. First-hand conversations with industry leaders and entrepreneurs expose students to the problem-solving process and help them develop their understanding of the future of food innovation.

The United Nations projects the world population will increase from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion in the next 30 years (United Nations 2017). The increase in population and changes in climate put stressful demands on agriculture. Disruptive challenges are forecasted for traditionally sourced ingredients, such as dairy, chocolate, and proteins from livestock. The food industry is looking for innovative solutions, and the market is expanding rapidly. Through The Kitchen Community, industry expert and investor Kimbal Musk underscores the potential for innovation and growth by pointing out that the food opportunity is ten times bigger than the global software market (Forbes 2017). 

Industry leaders in the food startup market understand the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Our 2016 Visiting Innovator Sean Greenwood, “grand poobah” of public relations at Ben & Jerry’s, shared with students the research and development that goes into sustainably sourcing raw materials for ice cream. Although Ben & Jerry’s is now owned by global corporation Unilever, it has still been able to influence and maintain its spirit of entrepreneurship and passion for community that began with two young entrepreneurs making ice cream in their garage. When asked during an interview at The Steward School about the sort of person Ben & Jerry’s likes to hire, Sean replied, “I am looking for someone who is passionate about the world and others, who has the ability to problem solve, and is not afraid to reinvent themselves every five to seven years.”

What’s driving Ben & Jerry’s and others’ desire to hire innovative problem solvers? As the world evolves, the food startup industry is doing its best to keep up. In the United States, a groundswell of young entrepreneurs is developing “challenger brands” that are expected to account for approximately 15 percent of a $464-billion sector within the next 10 years. That’s a 10 percent increase from today’s efforts, compared with five percent now, according to Bernstein Research.

At The Steward School, our students have the unique opportunity to engage with local food industry experts to explore food innovation in the lab and non-traditional, plant-based products. Local entrepreneur Michael Spinelli, co-founder and CTO of Nutriati, Inc., understands the opportunity and responsibility to innovate new ways to feed our growing population. This local Richmond, Va., company just received more than $8 million to further develop and expand manufacturing of its chickpea-based flour and other plant-based products. Michael has shared his passion for food innovation with students during demos and tastings at our makers’ fair. He plans to continue working with students this upcoming year as he shares his passion for the industry.

In 2015, Nutriati received $1.5 million for research and development from local fund New Richmond Ventures (NRV). NRV understands the power of the food industry and investing in local talent. Another NRV-supported start-up is Chia Bar maker Health Warrior, another past Bryan Lab Visiting Innovator. This locally created company has seen tremendous growth and can be found in stores across the United States.

In the Bryan Lab, our students are exposed to the dynamic, evolving, and critically important food industry from every angle—from seed to harvest, from garden to table, and from local start-up to global company. This education challenges them to understand both the natural world as well as business and industry. Beyond the Lab, here are some suggestions for families to engage together:

Encourage children to plan and orchestrate home-cooked meals. This helps build a foundation for professional skills in leadership, communication, patience, planning, and execution. Companies are trending toward hiring well-rounded staff with great communication skills.

Model and encourage exploration in the Richmond food scene. With its rich opportunities for learning and delicious sampling, Richmond is repeatedly recognized as one of the “Best Foodie Towns” in the United States by media such as National Geographic, Huffington Post, and Washington Post. Explore international markets, restaurants, and food trucks to discover and appreciate the diversity of cultures and regions of food and flavors. Visit the local farmers’ market and try the amazing variety of foods grown and cultivated by local entrepreneurs from farm to bay. Encourage children to ask questions and explore this industry.

Grow, harvest, and cook your own food to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of resources. We do not have to look into the future or across the world to find people suffering from scarcity of resources. In Virginia, we have an 11.8 percent food insecurity rate, which means that more than 912,790 people do not know from where their next meal will come, according to the Virginia Food Bank. Students in our program focus on solving local problems that pertain to food deserts through the amazing work of FeedMore, Rise Against Hunger, and Shalom Farms. Have a conversation with your children about how they’d like to contribute as a family.

Explore the gardens at The Steward School. Students who engage early with growing and eating fresh vegetables are investing in their health and wellness for life. We have 36 raised beds on the grounds of our school. The Shyla Ipsen Memorial Gardens at the Bryan Innovation Lab are filled with vegetables, herbs, and flowers. We encourage students, parents, faculty, and staff to sample from our harvest and learn about gardening. Be on the lookout for opportunities to taste and learn from local chefs and gardeners this year.

Knowledge of growing and preparing food has lasting effects on students. The skills gained in the growing, cooking, and testing in the Lab prepare them for healthier lives and introduce them to an industry with potential for tremendous growth. Come join us and feast on the opportunity as we cook up our very own food innovation program here at The Steward School. If you’d like to learn more about how our Steward students are engaging in this industry, please check out an article about our food innovation programming in the 2016-17 Year in Review on page six.

Director of the Bryan Innovation Lab Cary Jamieson holds a Masters in liberal arts with a concentration in sustainability from the University of Richmond as well as a BFA from Longwood University with minors in archeology and sociology. She holds certificates in grant writing from the University of Richmond and in historic landscape preservation from UVA. She currently serves on the board of VCU’s Rice Rivers Center.





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