Exploring Innovation Overseas: FFI Fellows head to the USA

Three fellows. One founder. And fourteen days of innovation and exploration in the United States. The Future Food Institute took flight in April for an overseas, bi-coastal investigation into innovation on American soil. Italians Chiara Cecchini, Elisa Bedin and Antonio Gargliardi, Food Innovation Program Graduates and current Future Food Fellows, joined FFI founder Sara Roversi on an intense but invigorating tour that took them to Boston, Massachusetts and the Silicon Valley area in California where they got to peek inside some of the most coveted innovation scenes of the globe right now. The goal? Collaboration, cross-pollination and pure inspiration; all to be absorbed, exchanged and re-distributed by fellows and founder.

The team touched down in Boston, Massachusetts on April 17, 2016, university capital of the USA and home to technology research headquarters at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After arrival, the first afternoon was spent exploring of this attractive East Coast city, and of course compulsory acquaintance with the local food scene. As first time visitors to the USA, the fellows were happy to be in new territory, regardless of the agenda. But it didn’t take long for them to track down the innovation scene, in this case the MIT Media Lab.

During their two-and-a-half day immersion into pure innovation, the group was able to visit various projects being explored by the Lab, which encourages ‘the most unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas” and creates “disruptive technologies” within those realms. At the Laboratory for Social Machines, in collaboration with media-giant Twitter, the group was introduced to the concept of linking words with different behaviors, especially when it comes to food. Says fellow Chiara Cecchini, “They are focusing on food behaviors and eating. And so they are trying to do the genome of food, the ‘food-nome’, linking different words and moods, but everything based on tweets.” An impressive amount of data from Twitter is available to the Social Machine researchers, making it possible to explore tangible links across a variety of topics, taking data science to the next level.

Also at the Media Lab, the group was able to visit the Tangible Media Lab, the Open Agriculture team, and the Family Creative Learning team. The group learned about creating recipes for hydroponic growing through the OpenAg Lab with the intent to develop standardized hydroponic growing for specific plant varieties around the world, what should be known as “the alphabet of food,” Chiara points out. Hildreth England, former FFI student and current OpenAg project coordinator was able to give the fellows a close look at what it custom growing might mean for the future of food. While the OpenAg team was the only specifically food focused team, that didn’t stop the fellows from making the most of every interaction.

At the Creative Learning Lab, Chiara was impressed at the methodologies being used to make room for co-creation among parents and children. “They were more focused on parent/child co-creation in general. It was technology driven. But since at FFI we are focused on food, we can imagine using their tested methodologies to further explore creation of food.” The Tangible Media Lab, on the other hand, was introduced to the fellows by  PhD candidate Lining Yao. Instead of working with virtual data, Lining and her team are attempting to compute “physical matter.” This particular group focuses “programmable matter,” as Antonio says, who took an interest in their digital fabrication philosophies. The time at MIT was short and intense, but able to open inspiration channels to the fellows, who were exposed to open innovation in its purest form. “When we asked why they were doing these projects,” says Chiara, “the response was, ‘Because we like it!’ It was innovation for innovation’s sake.” To see innovation as a pursuit of passion was an inspiring cause.

From the East to the West, fellows flew to another innovation hub, the Silicon Valley. The weekend was spent visiting Buck’s Woodside restaurant (a staple in the startup networking scene), visiting with Meghan Shellenberg, food program manager from AirBnB, meeting the Italian Consul general Mauro Battocchi and getting an inside look into the Future Food Institute partner, Institute for the Future with Rebecca Chesney, Miriam Lueck Avery, Rod Falcon, and Sarah Smith. Each visit played an important role in forming the fellow’s experience, providing diverse views on approaches to work, entrepreneurship and innovation. At AirBnB, the team was surprised to see employee designed workspaces, where each corner was different. The space was completely designed with variety and comfort and diversity in mind. There were sections designed and decorated to look like various posts from all over the world, bringing an international approach to everyday duties.

On Saturday, the team was able to spend an afternoon of tasting with Sunita de Tourreil of the Chocolate Garage. Four hours and many chocolate bars later, the fellows had an important revelation: their approaches were completely different. Antonio, focused on the technology and 3D printing aspect of things, immediately honed in on the potential opportunities in the chocolate world for the development of this technology. Elisa, research oriented and academic focused, was curious on the background and the potential connections, from suppliers, to roasters, to distributors, that could be tracked and channeled and presented. Whereas Chiara, as a young business owner herself, was excited to explore perspective business models with Sunita, who is only in her third year of business. For the fellows, having an actual case study of a food focused business was the perfect place to showcase their combined knowledge in an informal and collaborative environment.

Finally, the group participated in the highlight event of the tour: Google Food Lab. An invitation only series of networking events, the Google hosted workshops are developed in order to bring key players in the food industry together to share ideas and work towards a more sustainable food future. Multinationals like Coca-Cola and Monsanto sat alongside researchers from the top American universities, representatives of food focused non-profits, and of course our future food fellows who opened the working presenting their individual projects. Says Antonio, “It was great for me to speak about food customization, especially about 3D printing. My presentation was just a provocation, but it was valuable to hear enthusiasm alongside real critiques: ‘How can 3D printing help feed the world? How can we change behaviors with 3D printing?’ It was good talking to really important people in the industry.”

Presenters took turns sharing their personal projects and then there was time to receive from feedback from all participants. “It was overwhelming,” says Chiara, “but motivational. It felt good to make connections, geed feedback, and really have a group to support and motivate my work.” The depth and range of projects presented (from Peter Klosse’s flavor profiles to Josh Goldman of Australis Aquaculture) was extraordinary, and for fellows, to have a chance to look inside this budding world of food innovation, understanding and education was a real treat. “There’s a lot of spreading the knowledge, but in a different way. I’m always talking about what we saw in the Google lab because we had such different points of view. When Michiel spoke about the main dividers in the food industry:personalization and traceability, it was amazing to see all the different responses to those two points,” shares Antonio.

Overall, the trip was about meeting, understanding and exposure: to people, ideas, things, and innovation. The team was able to pack in an unprecedented agenda revolving around innovation at every level, and not just in terms of food. Says Elisa, “I found it valuable to be so exposed to an international environment. Not only to test my knowledge, but also to feel part of a completely innovative community.” The foundation of the Future Food Ecosystem revolves around collaboration, and getting outside your usual realm is crucial and being able to explore different problem solving perspectives. Elisa shares, “I’m taking advantage of the network we created. Moreover, for my specific project, I’m collaborating with two amazing companies: Barilla and Google. So my goal is to bring the Mediterranean culture abroad, via food. And of course, what better environment to test, than US?” Back in Italy, the fellows will have a chance to share their experience and knowledge across the FFI platforms, and spread enthusiasm for positive change for a better future of food.

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