PAUL MATTEUCCI: Making Change
Interview by Mary Hoff
Why did you choose to focus on food security?
My family was originally from Italy, and most ended up in the food business. My dad was a butcher and I worked in butcher shop as kid. I didn't realize until I read Michael Pollan how the meat delivery system had changed radically, all the problems it was causing. I also have a passion for food. I'm a cook; I love the world of food; I take classes whenever I can to learn more. I thought, “How do I put what I'm passionate about to work, to hopefully make some small change in the direction we're going?”
What's the idea behind Feeding 10 Billion?
Over couple of years I identified about 200 entrepreneurs in food systems. I determined that there's talent there, but also some missing pieces. There is not the same infrastructure for these entrepreneurs that we find, for example, in information technology or health care. Feeding 10 Billion creates infrastructure for entrepreneurs in sustainable agriculture.
Is the infrastructure available to help you accomplish your goals?
A couple of things have to change. For example, entrepreneurs are not going to be able to make a large impact on the food system unless major corporations are also interested in doing that. The reason it works in IT and health is that if start-ups bring a good idea to the table, someone wants to buy it from them. In IT and health care, big companies are used to getting new ideas from the acquisition of start-up companies that are entrepreneur-generated. That's not as much the case in big agriculture. Big Ag is much more likely to roll their own. They're not used to scouting around start-up communities to look for their next big ideas.
How do you go about finding the right partners?
You work backwards. You look at the big problems in food systems. We have three enormous problems: How do we feed 10 billion people by 2050 or 2060? How do we do this without destroying the environment? How do we do this without exacerbating disease and chronic ailments? Next, you break down the huge problems into component problems. For example, “not destroying the planet” would break down to things like “not polluting the water,” “not destroying the soil,” “not eliminating species like bluefin tuna,” “not contributing a third of all greenhouse gases” and many more.
Then you look for entrepreneurs who are attacking the component problems. Find the guy in India who can figure out how to bring solar to farms so they can keep production running 24/7. Or the guy in San Mateo, Calif., who is finding a way to trace food to its source, so if there is a contamination problem we can deal with it. Or the woman in Massachusetts who is developing a shortcut for families to be able to buy a single brand that handles all the key attributes they care about, like organic and sustainable and treats animals well. Then there is the team from Stanford that is using sensor analytics to target fertilization to only exactly where it is needed, reducing the amount of chemicals farmers use. Or the folks in Spain, who are hatching bluefin tuna from the eggs of domesticated brood stock for use in open ocean pens. There are scores of these ideas. To get the best ones you first have to start with a lot of ideas.
You don't try to boil the ocean. You try to find the one idea, while knowing it's going to take hundreds or thousands of experiments to eventually solve the big problems.
What advice do you have for people who want to transform the food system?
In agriculture, people who are developing skills don't normally think of entrepreneurism as an alternative career. They think of working for government, Big Ag or universities. They don't think, “I can start a company.” Where I come from in Silicon Valley, it's second nature. We grow up thinking starting a company is a possibility, if not a birthright. It's a different way of thinking. I try to inspire people to at least consider this option.
What are the obstacles?
Food system entrepreneurs face some skills and experience issues: Who do you go to? How do you get it financed? How do you organize a new venture? Part of it also is just letting people know it's a real possibility; that there are alternatives to the usual career paths. Another obstacle is risk adversity. One of the things that's great about Silicon Valley is that we destroy things all the time. We let things die. Where is Sun Microsystems? Silicon Graphics? Digital Equipment? Friendster, Napster, MySpace? We let them die because, as with agriculture, their death fertilizes the next generation of companies. Failure is not penalized as harshly here as it is in other parts of society.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities?
Waste mitigation is huge: Roughly one-third of calories are lost between the time they are created and the time they could have been consumed—one third! Enough to feed 2 billion people. In developing countries it's all about distribution channels, losing calories in the process of moving them to the consumer. In the developed world, it's about buying more than we need and throwing away the excess.
A second large opportunity is protein substitutes, particularly in aquaculture, where we are feeding scarce wild protein to domesticated protein. But also, more recently, new protein substitutes for meat products. Ones that are aesthetically equivalent in appearance, taste and texture to what they mimic.
A third area is precision agriculture: using information systems and sensors to enable farmers to water more accurately, not overfertilize, not overuse insecticide and manage their farms on a more granular basis. A fourth area is substituting benign alternatives for inputs that hurt the environment—biofertilizers and biopesticides replacing petroleum-based products. Not only do they reduce reliance on oil, but these substitutes tend to have less of a residual impact on the environment.
Geographically, the biggest opportunities are in Southeast Asia, China, India, then the U.S. In Southeast Asia, the first issue is not population growth; it is the emergence of a large middle class, which tends to be more meat-centric and thus requires more calories of input to produce the same number of calories for the end consumer. Relative to changing diets, population growth is the second most important factor in the growth in calories demanded by humans. In places like India and Africa, it is still more just about getting people food. In Europe and the U.S. it's the impact of existing food systems on our health and the environment.
What keeps you going?
You only have so many years on the planet—you may as well do something interesting. From the perspective of the entrepreneur or venture capitalist, every enormous problem in the world, with the possible exception of nuclear war, presents an occasion for innovation. Whether global warming or saving oceans or renewable energy or curbing epidemics—those are all daunting problems for everyone, except for the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who can reframe them as opportunities.
Any parting words?
Entrepreneurship is an alternative to working for someone else, a way to take control of your life. Give it a try.
VENTURE CAPITALIST PAUL MATTEUCCI
As general partner of U.S. Venture Partners, venture capitalist Paul Matteucci has long been involved in helping ignite the spark of success for promising entrepreneurs. After reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma several years ago, he recognized an opportunity to leverage change in a new realm: agriculture and food security. With his family he has founded Feeding 10 Billion, a nonprofit resource center for food system entrepreneurs that launches this week. In a recent conversation with Momentum and Terry Waghorn of Forbes, Matteucci described his vision for building a better world.
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Last modified on January 23, 2012