SXSW is the annual gathering of tech, marketing, music, film and other enthusiasts in Austin, Texas, and four Nima team members have just returned from this year’s adventures. We were thrilled to participate in the first ever Food and Tech Startup Spotlight, curated by food tech investor and adviser Brian Frank. We got the chance to sit in on panels discussing food, health, science, marketing and more, as well as scope out and experiment with all sorts of emerging technologies. We did three Facebook Live streams, where we shared the biggest takeaways from each day (Day 1, Day 2, Day 5).
Several key themes kept popping up that we’re likely to keep hearing about post-SXSW: food tech, agricultural tech, diet and nutrition data for consumers, emerging health technologies, and lots of conversations on the intersection of the consumer, social media and health. We dive into each below, and expect to see them discussed even further in the media, at other conferences, and at SXSW next year.
Every body is different
We, as consumers, need to figure out what makes us feel good. There are no longer blanket statements about diet and exercise requirements that apply to every American. Recent advances not just in genome research (although CRISPR was a big topic at this year’s event), but also in our understanding of the microbiome, underscore how critical this notion of personalized wellness is. The daily 10k-step requirement doesn’t apply to everyone – what if you use a wheelchair? How can you translate your personal wellness without “steps?” Also, based on your microbiome, you may find you need to change your diet to improve your microbiome diversity or find that you’re lacking a specific nutrient. Medicine that may work to treat one person may not work for another person with the same condition.
Personalized wellness tools are coming out fast and furious: EverlyWell launched at-home consumer test kits for food sensitivities as well as sexual health, cholesterol and lipids testing. Habit is creating customized nutrition plans based on blood tests. These aren’t the only companies engendering this customization, while also pushing the notion that consumers are in charge of their health. Consumers are also more frequently demanding this DIY health care – one of the reasons Nima created a consumer product – it answers a real pain point and empowers consumers who manage special dietary needs.
At Nima, we believe every body is different – it’s even in our manifesto. We know that health and wellness take a lot of personal trial and error. Diet is a critical component of health (you should see what ordering the monthly team lunch is like!), and everyone’s optimal diet can be slightly or drastically different. Many of our Nima community members tell us that they had to trial and error before finding the diet that enabled them to harness their best selves.
A body positivity panel at SXSW even touched on recognizing individual needs – let’s not judge others whose body needs are different than ours. Let’s celebrate how a person feels as a result of the diet and wellness plan they follow. I know we are sick of hearing stories of micro-aggressions and judgement against dietary choices or needs. Everyone has their own food identity that we should accept and celebrate.
There are promising areas of research for individual & health therapeutics: the microbiome and epigenetics
The microbiome is a promising area of research in therapeutics. If you’re not familiar with this term and the work happening in this space, it involves the human microbiota and analysis of their role in human health and disease. What is the microbiome? It’s made up of the trillions of bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and viruses living in and on the human body. Add to this the amazing amount of emerging research showing the connection between the gut, brain and autoimmune conditions. The NIH has the Human Microbiome project, and emerging companies, such as UBiome, are tracking the human microbiome with at-home testing. Almost every conversation, panel and talk related to food that we attended talked about the impact this research is going to have on nutrition, diet and medicine. It will be changing diets and will change how we approach treating chronic conditions, such as Parkinson’s, autism spectrum disorder and other autoimmune conditions. While most microbiome therapeutics are still in research stages (unless you have C. diff and want to get a fecal transplant), you’ll be seeing more and more news and studies released in the coming years of how we can change individual microbiome compositions to treat disease. Imagine if you could transplant a healthy person’s microbiome into your own microbiome to cure food allergies!
Genetics were discussed with the same enthusiasm in the medical community. 23&Me, along with other genetic testing services, provide insights that can be leveraged for personal health. Epigenetics studies how genes express themselves (or don’t) and how they impact diet and health. Epigenetic research on children of Holocaust survivors shows that they may have altered health and wellness needs based on the circumstances under which their parents lived.
Holistic views of health are emergent
Based on feedback from Nima community members sharing their path to diagnosis with a food intolerance, sensitivity or autoimmune condition, we know a holistic approach to health tends to be more successful anecdotally. When our community members work with practitioners who ask them questions not just about diet, but sleep, fitness, general well-being, work, family life and travel, providers find they can get to actionable insights and treatments faster. Along with advances in genomics, microbiome, at-home consumer-driven lab testing and fast access to information, blending in conversations asking people how they are really feeling makes a huge difference toward diagnosis and treatment plans.
From startups democratizing access to health tools previously considered the province of experts, such as the aforementioned EverlyWell, heart monitors and inexpensive sleep trackers, to the growing influence of ethnography and empathy driving patient-centered design, to patients advocating for themselves, this holistic approach is becoming mainstream. The treatments are, too. You now see not just medical facilities adding holistic treatment centers, but hotels offering wellness tools, such as yoga mats, conferences offering exercise options as panels, companies building urban gardens for employees and people approaching food as medicine.
A lot of conversations centered on the value of cooking at home. Yet, consumers still have to know what is healthy, how to gain access to these healthy foods (which includes price accessibility, geographic accessibility and convenience) and what is healthy for them personally.
Two panels on diverse topics raised the notion that we need to define standards and key words emerging in the new food-health ecosystem. The first was “Why the Food Industry Needs a Data Standard” and the second on “Personalized Medicine.” When we talk about new trends, it’s critical that we’re all coming in with the same definitions.
In the case of the first panel, the speakers noted the importance of establishing data standards in food. The two speakers, one from ClearLabs and the other from FarMobile, acknowledged that “we want this, because we want data around food AND the ability to share it, fostering transparency & insight.” However, what is “this?” How do you define what food transparency is? Even asking the audience elicited different points of view. The Nima community has generally expressed this concept as “I want to know that what I’ve been told I’m eating is truthful.” For some, this could be as simple as “this is a carrot” for others that might mean “this is a carrot that is GMO-free, that is organic and was grown locally,” and yet for others it might mean “this is a carrot with X carbohydrates and Y calories.” The food and ag tech industries still growing, and it is up to us to come together as an industry, working with existing providers and consumers, to define what these concepts mean to ensure more meaningful conversations.
In the context of personalized health – with representatives from EverlyWell, CaribouBiosciences, Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, and Rose Prose, understanding what is meant by “disease” is critical. Tools like CRISPR raise questions like “Can I test for conditions at birth?” However, how do we define test? Is it a screen or a diagnostic? What is a “disease” versus a “disorder,” and what about chronic versus acute illness? Stanford’s Mildred Cho pointed out that some thought that homosexuality was a disease or that autism should be cured. Where do we draw the line? We have to have a common understanding of how we approach health in this realm.
The criticality of definitions cropped up in several panels related to robotics, too. What is a robot? What is a vehicle? What is a personal assistant? How do we come together as a society and agree on what these items mean? It always takes time to come to consensus around these concepts, but even within the industry people debate these items.
These sessions also pointed out that certifications, regulations and guiding bodies are having a hard time keeping up with emergent technologies. Not only are social mores changing, but with tools like CRISPR, it can be difficult to be ahead of the curve from these standpoints. For both consumers and the industry, having a solid understanding is critical. We’ll be discussing this idea of defining new terms in the food tech space in the near future.
Food tech grows up
We love our food tech peers. After three years of going to meetups, attending SXSW panels at the Driskill and meeting people across social media, we’re finally starting to see the food tech space mature. Brian Frank has been driving the charge here as an investor most focused on early-stage food tech companies. This year at SXSW, we saw more separation in terms of ag tech, food tech (which is different from food innovation) and restaurant tech. There’s still crossover between them, and we’re seeing an emergence of food tech specifically designed for nutrition, not just cooking. Nima is firmly focused on connected food sensors, and we’re starting to see things like Panasonic’s concept nutrient sensor and other ideas germinate. (We track all of these innovations over on Product Hunt.)
Nima is pioneering the connected food sensor space, creating data that consumers have never had before – food data, backed by science, at their fingertips.
Consumers need to demand transparency and better education
In today’s age, companies are expected to be transparent about what they are doing for consumers, but not every company follows through. In the case of food, several panels noted that you don’t really know what’s in your food. Restaurants may not want you to understand how much fat, sugar or salt has been added to your salad dressing. Consumers may want to know what gene editing does to a tomato, but grocery stores may want to focus on the bright red object in their store. The restaurant industry has relatively sparse regulation compared to packaged foods. Restaurants are counting on consumers to be uneducated – we need to ask more questions, challenge labels and celebrate when Big Food makes healthier changes. USHFC is also leading a campaign for restaurant certification to prove that restaurant claims are true. By asking more questions and voicing our wants and needs from Big Food, we can shift their practices and demand greater food transparency.
What about cooking in the home? Panels touched more and more on the importance of cooking at home being crucial to health because if you are shopping for your food, following a recipe and cooking at home, you know more about what you’re putting in your body and where it comes from. There is also an emphasis on devices not just to help you cook, but to be more creative – food is not just about nourishment, but love. This push toward home cooking might explain the growth in urban farming – people aren’t just cooking at home but growing their own food at home or at work. If you’re growing your own veggies, you know whether or not pesticides are being used or if they are in season. Founder and CEO of Snappy Salads Chris Dahlander supposed that people who don’t like tomatoes just haven’t ever had a ripe, locally-grown tomato. The crunchy, pink orbs you get in grocery stores are nowhere close to the deliciousness of a ripe, home-grown tomato.
In all panels, there was a great deal of stress on education – that with these emerging technologies, consumer knowledge of diet and health is critical. When one in eight people already withhold information from their doctor that could inform some personalized and holistic medical treatment, it’s important to educate people on the value of providing that information. What does sharing buy them? A chance to receive information, specific to their needs. Whether buying food or pursuing some health and wellness activity, not asking questions or doing research has its consequences. What meal provides the optimal nutrition for a specific person? What exercise regimen best fits a specific cardiovascular need? How do we ensure people know that they way they prepare their food may preserve more of the nutrient value? How does what they buy in a store impact the choices a farmer makes about how or what to farm? How does deciding to take your medicine impact your health holistically?
Ultimately, all of this food and health data is useless if consumers don’t understand it or don’t know what to do with it. You can’t make an informed decision about how to share your DNA data if you don’t understand what DNA is, as Kate Black from 23&Me noted in her session. In the case of health data, such as information collected about your DNA or microbiome, it’s highly sensitive personal information that multiple health providers have access to, along with the company who sold you the test. Do you understand your options and who has access to it? Do you understand what the consequences of knowing this information are? For nutrition, if consumers don’t know what GMOs really are, how can they understand if they even need to avoid GMO foods? Can you understand the ideal diet without a basic understanding of nutrition? Do people understand the microbiome isn’t icky bugs but vital viruses and bacteria, among other things? Consumers have to take time to gain a basic scientific understanding in order to ask educated questions and make meaningful health changes.
These sessions also pointed out that certifications, regulations and guiding bodies are having a hard time keeping up with emergent technologies. Not only are social mores changing, but with tools like CRISPR, it can be difficult to be ahead of the curve from these standpoints. For both consumers and industry, having a solid understanding is critical.
These trends reinforce how important knowledge and data are to nutrition and health. Knowledge really is delicious.