When faced with the challenge of Y2K, the computer industry realized innovation is better.  The turn of the millennium in 2000 was supposed to be an exciting event. Instead, for the IT and internet communities, it was a looming disaster. Thanks to a widespread computer programming shortcut from the early days of the technology, many programs only allowed two digits for each year — 1987, for example, would have been coded as just 87. That’s fine when every year begins with 19, but it can crash the entire system when years begin starting with 20. 

We’re starting to see similar “crash the system” forces at work in food and health as well.

For example, Russian forces recently killed a retired US special forces operator.  He, and the others that were injured, were working to sneak grain out of Ukraine in an effort to supply the Middle East with a critical food source.  First and foremost, this was done to avoid famine. But also because famine brings instability.  Warriors know that geopolitics, war, food and energy are fundamentally and forever linked.

Yesterday 300 people died in the United States from Type 2 Diabetes.  In the last 24 hours, the US spent $5.3B on healthcare and other issues related to poor nutrition.

While special operators fight in the shadows forestalling global famine, the next set of innovations you may have never heard of are transforming the science and production of food with the same goals in mind.  Improve access to healthy, nutritious foods in order to better feed the world and promote a stronger planet.

Food: Better and Cheaper

Companies like Benson Hill, Geltor, Bonumose, Bright Seed, Molecular Assemblies, Arable, FlyWheel, and others are marshaling the science of AI, Big Data, CRISPR, RNA, and new business models to deliver better food at a lower cost.  They are improving the production of existing crops and innovating new foods through synthetic biology.  They are using data to optimize supply chains.  They are listening to consumers with new needs. 

Better food at a lower cost, with transparency and less waste.

We spend $1.7T each year on food in the United States.  We spend $1.9T on the healthcare cost of poor nutrition.  Globally, the growth of the middle class requires a near doubling of protein production by 2050.On September 28th, the White House is convening a meeting on nutrition.  It will be the first major nutrition policy meeting at the White House in over 50 years.  For decades doctors, policymakers and scientists have nudged us toward this critical point.  To name a few, who are colleagues that influence our fund, the list includes Dr. Robert Lustig, Nancy Roman, Dr. David Ludwig, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dr. David Permutter, and Dr. Casey Means.

Dr. Casey Means and Grady Means recently summarized the policy challenges for the White House meeting in a op-ed from The Hill: A Great Meal May Save America.

Is Sugar the New Tobacco

Highly refined sugar (and ultra-processed grain, which turns into sugar) in so many foods is the culprit that is addicting, afflicting and killing more Americans annually than fentanyl and other illicit drugs. 

We are at a crossroads.  For 75 years doctors thought that health was a balance of calories in, and calories expended.  Likely that perspective is why we have runaway obesity.  Now, we understand that health is tied to our metabolism.  In the extreme, metabolic instability leads to Type 2 diabetes, the fastest growing pandemic in the United States, through the work of Drs. Lustig, Ludwig and others we are learning the health impact of metabolic instability starts with our food well before we ever see it in our blood.  

The carbohydrate-insulin model: a physiological perspective on the obesity pandemic – perhaps the single most important paper on the topic

Only 7% of American Adults Have Good Cardiometabolic Health

We are beginning to see the impact of refined sugars in our food and the inflammation it creates.  Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and even Covid are in part, or perhaps significantly, linked to this inflammation. 

Despite the best efforts of the Affordable Care Act and other healthcare policies, our health continues to get worse, and the cost of care continues to climb.  The problem is not healthcare.  The problem is food. 

Innovation is Better

A recent post on LinkedIn reminded me of my early days implementing lean manufacturing in 1991 on the F/A-18 E/F program.  For each F/A18 C/D variant we built, about 10% of the production cost was spent on “rework” to repair production defects.  As we moved to design the F/A-18 E/F we adopted the new principles of Design For Manufacturing, Six Sigma, and Lean Manufacturing to resolve the root causes of these defects.  We designed the aircraft in novel ways achieving what many thought was impossible – Six Sigma manufacturing quality on a military aircraft.

On the F/A-18 C/D we spent 10% on rework.  With $1.9T going to the cost of poor nutrition, we spend 112% on rework.  With the ratio of US debt to GDP at 120% (normally 60%), and continued inflationary pressure on food and health, are we at a Y2K moment?  Are we at a moment where the system will soon break?  Or will the deflationary forces of innovation step in?

In the 90s, innovative startups used the Y2K threat as motivation (and an investment incentive) to rapidly develop new internet technologies to address the potential for a January 1, 2000 system crash.

As a venture fund, we at iSelect have the privilege to see inside this vortex of innovation.  In the last five years, we have seen more than 4,000 young companies working to improve nutrition – from the microbes in our soil to the mutations in your RNA.  The scale and scope of their work will solve this problem, just as tech companies faced the looming Y2K crash in the 90s.  These startups are on a complex and sophisticated path.

We all have to eat, we do not have to have a cell phone.  So the size of the opportunity globally is likely many times larger in breadth and market than the internet.  It impacts genetics, supply chains, finance, the environment and global power.

If we use innovation to improve nutrition, it is clear that we will also reduce the cost of better nutrition and waste.  The combination of understanding nature and science, tied to better business models, leads to better food, less healthcare cost, and less environmental impact.  The process of more adorable food is also a process of eliminating waste.  The delivery of better nutrition reduces metabolic instability.  The increase of access globally to quality affordable food, reduces the geopolitical power of those that use food and energy to exert undue power.

Looking back at Y2K and the early days of the internet, it is important to remember that this transformation is a 15- to 20-year process.  No one really understood Amazon or Google in the late 90s.  It took time for investors to see the opportunities in those companies.  Some got rich because they saw it early.  Some lost money because they saw it too early. Y2K did not end up amounting to much, but the wave of innovation it ushered in is still with us today.  

We are, nonetheless in a vortex of disruption.  Our peers, including S2G Ventures, Middleland Capital, Prelude Ventures, and Google Ventures and we have invested in 100s of the new ventures focused on nutrition.  A few companies have come public.  Many more will soon become public.  We are a network of scientists, entrepreneurs, early adopter customers, capital provers and talent who understand the $3.6T opportunity in front of us.  The depth of the technology and opportunity is breathtaking.  The expanse of understanding is rapidly growing.  

Food is Health. Innovation is Better.