Reflections on
Future Food-Tech

By Patrick Niall

April 26, 2024

Will the purple tomato become the emblem of a healthier, more equitable food system?

Last month I spent time at Future Food-Tech (FFT) San Francisco—an annual gathering of food-tech startups, global FMCG companies, and venture capitalists budding to bring the next generation of the food system out of the test kitchen and into the world.

Future Food Tech was a feast for the senses—I needed all the adaptogens I could lay my hands on to take it all in. So why was I there?

At forpeople we shape the future human experience, but if we don’t radically adapt how and what we grow and eat, there’ll be no shared future to even speak of. We've been doing just that with Mosa Meat, Formo, Uncommon, Hoxton Farms, and Foodji, as well as global brands such as Danone, Mars, and The Coca-Cola Company.

Global food systems use 44% of Earth’s liveable land; account for 26% of the planet’s carbon emissions; and are systematically biased to serve the global north, while 2.3 billion people face moderate or severe food insecurity. If each person on earth were to adopt the typical US diet, we’d need seven Earths just to grow enough food.

Food is a global challenge that requires urgent strategic and creative answers. Clearly something has to change. At FFT I saw some of the technology, infrastructure and design that will play a significant role in delivering that change.

Novel Foods (as some label the industry) is currently facing a reckoning with reality: the buffet of easily-available capital which kept food-biotech startups well-fed in 2021 has been vastly reduced as the complexity of bringing products to market has become clear; agriculture has become a highly politicised topic in a year of global elections; and the media has drawn attention to wide-spread scepticism about the future of the space, often due to the actions of a few bad eggs.

But, after two days in the basement of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, I leave with renewed optimism in our ability to address the crisis of global food systems.


  1. Beyond the table, food is being seen as a solution to global health.

  2. To go further, companies are choosing to go together.

  3. Companies are solving the science, and starting to think about the people.

A panel of food-tech experts at FFT SF 2024

1. Beyond the table, food is being seen as a solution to global health.

Sharing a meal brings people closer together, building memories and navigating new flavours, (as friends at Hoxton Farms would say, “food is culture is life”) but it is also being seen as one of the strongest tools on the front-lines of a series of health epidemics.

For the first time since WW2, life expectancy is falling. 74% of Americans are obese, while 40% suffer from sleep deprivation, and 25% from a sedentary lifestyle.

The ‘Food as Medicine’ movement identifies ways to use nutrition to improve our overall health, and reduce the $11tn global strain which diet-related diseases place on healthcare systems worldwide.

Kyle Dardashti built Heali as an alternative to medically-intensive Crohn’s treatment. Over five years Heali has been developed into a platform which provides clinically-validated dietary treatments plans for over 240 conditions, through a hefty digital recipe book of nutrition programmes. It’s a bold, delicious, and personalised way to improve health outcomes in harmony with your body’s needs. Leveraging the power of diet to prevent illness or enhance medical therapies sets the scene for a new way of thinking about healthcare experience.

‘Food as Medicine’ can also involve fortifying and adapting existing food products to bring nutrients and health benefits—working ahead of (or in tandem with) medical treatment.

There’s a clear moral and practical onus on global brands to ensure better, more nutritious food is more widely available, but how about going deeper?

Some food tech brands are expanding the opportunities for individuals to take agency in understanding their own bodies and the affect food has on their biology.

In this field, data, analysis, and bio-feedback are the key ingredients to delivering hyper-personalised nutrition successfully. Companies such as Brightseed and One.Bio use our gut microbiomes as unique keys to improving health outcomes, developing personalised nutrition products in symbiosis with our own microbes.

Any drawbacks? Well, nobody wants to poop in a jar and send it away in the mail, which is the current default method of data gathering for the gut.

What role might enterprise hardware and software providers like Dell, Slack, or Okta play in understanding our individual needs?

Inspired by the innovation on display at FFT, I see a future of better networks of less-invasive sensory devices which can make deeper real-time readings a reality.

Sensor companies such as Supersapiens are already able to draw insights at the biological level, while our ubiquitous personal ecosystems of webcams, accelerometers, Spotify playlists, and keyboards could build a clear realtime picture of our emotional and physiological states. What role might enterprise hardware and software providers like Dell, Slack, or Okta play in understanding our individual needs—thereby delivering totally tailored tasty treats for better wellbeing? Perhaps in the near future your exercise bike will be planning your meals as it orders you custom gummies.

Thinking “food first” is a way to keep the world healthier, avoid costly and unpleasant hospital treatment, and relieve overburdened healthcare systems. It’s a fantastic journey to be part of, albeit one with serious user experience challenges to chew through.

Together with Formo, we built the brand, culture, and space to bring a food biotech community together.

2. To go further, companies are choosing to go together.

There’s a common understanding among food-biotech companies that the best way to redefine the global food system is through collaboration. It is an industry born out of therapeutics, and one whose materials and processes overlap with bio-materials, healthcare, and brewing.

While this family has largely stayed close, we’ve recently been seeing a formalisation of these close bonds into joint ventures and collaboration agreements that amplify the reach of innovation.

Our close friends Formo have announced a strategic partnership with Belgian alt-dairy pioneers Those Vegan Cowboys. Both share a common goal of bringing indulgent animal-free dairy to the masses by domesticating microbes. Their collaboration means shared ideas, research, and enabling each other to accelerate products to market.

The next level of collaboration - between innovation-focused startups and multi-national food manufacturers - is within grasp.

As these products come to market, the next level of collaboration - between innovation-focused startups and multi-national food manufacturers - is within grasp. Hail the rise of the cult ingredient brand: companies who create ingredients that augment a manufacturer’s product, (without reinventing the production line) to deliver incredible taste benefits to the end consumer. Perhaps to the point that consumers will seek out these iconic status ingredients in the products they buy.

London startup Hoxton Farms sees cultivated animal fat as the missing link in the world’s plant-based meat alternatives. Animal fat is the evocative sizzle, sear, and flavour of meat - something that plant-based fats fail to replicate. A food manufacturer who incorporates Hoxton Farms’ cell-cultivated animal fat into their plant-based products can offer consumers the satisfying sensory profile of real meat with zero animal harm, a low carbon footprint, antibiotic-free, and without the deforestation and performance issues of plant oils.

Meanwhile, Josh and Niels from Zya are busy harnessing enzymes as their magical ingredient. Convero, their first product, converts glucose into plant-fibre in your gut, effectively reducing the sugar content of foods by up to a third and improving nutritional value without affecting formulation, while retaining all the flavour and sensory appeal that people love.

Imagine the impact this could have when enhancing the world's Coca-Colas, Kit Kats, Lay's, Fruit Loops and beyond.

These alliances are critical because it's the global food giants who have the ability to bring innovative, nutritious, beneficial foods to billions through their unrivalled reach, optimised supply chains, and ability to get products the last mile at low prices.

So how do we go about going together?

We should build companies that have creative collaboration at their core, ingredient brands that have the swagger to take to the main stage of consumer consciousness, and eventually making it irresistible for Big Food to make big change.

We worked with cultivated fat company Hoxton Farms to create an irresistibly fatty ingredient brand anyone could fall in love with.

3. Companies are solving the science, and starting to think about the people.

FFT is a conference held in a hotel basement where a lot of amazing food scientists talk about science. For now, that works, because clearly the science has got to work.

But as more and more novel food products find their way from test tube to table (looking at you Forged) the conversation needs to leave the basement and take to the streets.

That’s why it was especially sweet to hear Ali Wing, founder of Oobli, bring her deep expertise in building D2C companies to the conversation. The science behind Oobli is precision fermentation, natural plant proteins that aim for your T1R2-T1R3 taste receptors. The output is a cheerful and simple range of sweetened ice teas and chocolates with a fraction of the sugar content of their conventional equivalents.

Their plan - Ali shared - was to build a desirable consumer-facing brand from the off, gaining consumer confidence and building brand love by getting products to market early. Not only to make sales, but also to gain feedback from the people that matter (the ones eating the stuff) and attract serious industry partnerships in the process.

“I'm not looking to make consumers smarter, I’m looking for them to adopt better habits and better choices.” — Ali Wing, CEO & Co-Founder, Oobli

Hopping on a tram down to Dogpatch, I was honoured to be given a tour around the home of Wildtype Foods by their creative visionary and co-founder Aryé Elfenbein. The Wildtype team inherited their space from a local craft brewery and are now putting the fermenters to use brewing up sustainable and ethical cultivated salmon. But their place feels more like a bright and cheerful sushi bar than a biotech lab. Every detail — from the recycled plastic back bar, to the handcrafted serving plates — is honed to bring a taste of accessible oceanic adventure.

Crucially, it's not all for show. Aryé and co-founder Justin use their headquarters to host, letting people experience products, get familiar with the process, and ultimately lift some of the mystery that surrounds the novel foods industry.

As Wildtype’s brewery shows, physical spaces that foster community and dialogue around a new way of making and eating are some of the most important tools in normalising this industry. They provide bases for collaborators, showcases for a new generation of farmers, and restaurants for the brave and curious.

So how can we bring a nascent industry confidently into the mainstream? How can we build brands which connect, respond, and are shaped by the people they serve? And how can we bring physical, digital, and emotional spaces to life which nourish a new generation from San Francisco to South Sudan?

It’s about an attitude of boldness, and confidence to enter into the conversation early and showcase not just indulgence, but the why: why do people need this? Why should they care? Why are they suspicious? Why will you be the one to change their minds?

Pursue the why.

The Wildtype 'W' beckons people into the tasting room.

All in all—after the gathering of an industry which has been accused of being detached from reality, of over-promising and under-delivering, and of being a technocratic project in opposition to food traditions—I walked away with a re-enforced confidence.

The bigger picture was not just still intact, but felt a few courses closer. Health, access and equitability are still the mission; collaboration is providing the reach and scale; and (most importantly) people are being placed at the heart of progress.

Want to talk future food with us?

We’d love to have you over for lunch (especially if you're making or funding: cultivated seafood; amazing next-gen bioreactors; old fruits doing new things; or absolutely anything that comes as a gummy.)

Oh, and what did I have in my lunch box?

One can of Oobli’s peach sweet tea is sweetened by natural proteins 3000x more effectively than sugar. Good for your gut, mind, and tongue, the Kardashians weren’t wrong about these guys.

A fillet of New/School Food's plant-based salmon, looking, cooking, and flaking like the real thing, this plant-based salmon brought some much-needed umami to the party.

A whole pocketful of Astreas' luxury truffles—pitched as astronaut performance meets Ferrero Rocher. With a heady mix of Lion’s Mane, folic acid, and caffeine, a pocket of these helped me get onto Pacific Time pronto.

And a four-pack of Optimist Cali Amaro Spritz. They weren’t at FFT, but their balanced and sharp non-alc Amaro Spritz went beautifully well with a sunny evening walk around Golden Gate Park.

Bon appétit.

Written by
Patrick Niall

Patrick is the Global Creative Director of forpeople and leads our Food & Nutrition mission – shaping the future of how people eat.

Interested? Get in touch to design the future of food with us →