GFI Director of Innovation Brad Barbera is inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs in the plant-based and clean meat sectors. Brad leads the Innovation Team, GFI’s brain trust of analysts and veteran entrepreneurs, in supporting good food companies through market intelligence, business plan reviews, branding, recruiting, and more.
Brad is the author of Keep Innovation Simple: Lead with Clarity and Focus in a World of Constant Change. Through decades of experience in product development and innovation, Brad has discovered that the simplest solutions are often the best solutions to complex problems. He recently spoke at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum about GFI’s work to fix the food system simply – if you will – by making the ethical choice the default choice.
I snagged a moment of his time to learn more about how entrepreneurs can lead this movement and redefine what’s possible in our food system. Prepare to be inspired.
You have deep experience with innovation and product development across a panoply of industries – everything from pharmaceuticals to personal care products. Why did food, in particular, capture your attention?
Food is so central to our existence and our essence as human beings. Only air and water are more critical to survival, but neither one of those has the social element that food does. Relationships are built over food.
On top of that, food is this incredible sensory experience. The taste, the smell, the texture, the appearance, the sound, how full you get – all these amazing sensations are tied to food. It’s such a powerful human experience that it certainly draws my attention, to say the least.
You’ve said ’simple is not the same thing as easy’ in reference to the fact that complicated, messy solutions are often easier to create than elegant, simple ones. How does this apply to the food system?
The food system is extraordinarily complicated. All sorts of interactions take place between when you put a seed in the ground and when someone puts food in their mouth. Each of those interactions has its challenges and opportunities. But if you focus on tackling each challenge in isolation, the whole system becomes exponentially more complicated. To fix the food system, we have to take a global perspective.
That’s why I think what GFI is doing is so important: we’re looking at things holistically. In general, we know that plant-based eating is better for the environment, better for health, better for alleviating poverty, and better for animal welfare. The approaches people have tended to take are piecemeal – trying to convince consumers to eat more plant-based or picketing local restaurants – things that don’t necessarily move the big picture needle at all.
I love that GFI is focusing on why people eat meat: it tastes good, it’s affordable, and it’s convenient. Okay, then let’s make plant-based and clean products that hit that trifecta so that they can become the default choice. It’s so simple.
In this complex system, we need to think about those simple solutions. By simple, I mean something that is clear and understandable – but not necessarily easy. When you put simple solutions in place, you can shift the entire system and not just a small piece of it.
Give me your pitch: why should innovators be looking for opportunity in the plant-based and clean meat markets?
That is easy! The opportunities are so numerous and so impactful. For both plant-based and clean meat, we’re at the bottom of the technological S-curve.
When new technologies emerge, their development follows this S-curve. We see slow growth at the beginning, but then there’s an inflection point where more people are getting involved. More discoveries lead to more discoveries, and then you have an explosion of growth where the technology is advancing at an incredibly accelerated rate. Ultimately, as the industry matures, the rate of technological advancement flattens out again.
I’ll compare it to the Wright Brothers. The Wright Brothers first flew in 1903. In 1918, planes were still made out of wood, and the wings were still cloth-covered – there just wasn’t that much technological advancement over those first 15 years.
In that period between WWI and WWII, however, suddenly the skies are filled with all sorts of different aircrafts. After that, the jet engine comes out, and you see this incredible growth of technology. Now we’re in that flattening-out period where planes have pretty much gotten as far as they’re going to go. The latest and greatest plane technology is cool, but it’s still a jet plane.
Plant-based meat and clean meat are still at the bottom of that S-curve. We are about 5 years out from when the very first clean meat burger debuted. We’ve just started discovering things that are making it seem possible to do some really cool stuff. I think we’re approaching that inflection point where things are going to take off. The financial prospects are enormous. This is a ground-floor opportunity, so people who can execute now have a lot of promise of future growth. It’s a thrilling time to be here. Not to mention that you have the opportunity to save the world and wake up every day to do something positive with a lasting legacy. That’s hard to beat.
(Wondering what the differences between plant-based and clean meat are and where the innovation and technology advances are needed? Look at our plant-based and clean meat mind maps. Think you've got the next great idea for plant-based and clean meat? Check out our GFIdeas community.)
Other than “keep innovation simple,” what advice would you give to companies starting out in the good food space?
There’s a tendency to want to work on branded finished products – the kinds of things that you’d see on a grocery store shelf. However, there are so many behind the scenes, business-to-business opportunities. For instance, processing equipment, flavorings, protein sources, and distribution may not be what catches your eye on the store shelf, but these are critical to making the food system work.
Find insights that your specific skill set can address, and worry less about where you can make money. The money will follow if you’re doing something with passion and skill.
What is the biggest challenge (or one of the biggest challenges) for good food innovators?
There’s a lot of doubt in people’s minds: “Can you do this? I don’t believe it.”
But that’s an irresistible opportunity for someone focused on technological challenges and achievements. As a young engineer, I enjoyed nothing more than making something happen when others said it was impossible. I see so many opportunities in plant-based and clean meat exactly like that.
You recently presented at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum 2018. Did you discover any delicious plant-based products over there that we should be eating on this side of the Atlantic?
I am a big fan of Oatly’s line of plant-based milks and yogurts. There was that little section of plant-based products at breakfast at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum, so I went straight to it and had Oatly’s yogurt with some fruit and granola. It was fantastic.
I was very impressed by several of the plant-based meats that were presented at the conference as well. When I spoke with these companies, they were very focused on their local markets. However, I would not be surprised to see them expanding internationally in the future.
What’s one plant-based or clean meat product that you think someone should develop?
My obnoxious answer is all of them. I was recently traveling in Europe and Asia, and I was struck by the number of types of animal-based products out there. Even when I was at the EAT Forum in Stockholm, for breakfast at the conference hotel, there were rows and rows of eggs, cheeses, bacon, ham, sausages, yogurts, cottage cheese, and you name it. Everything was animal-based. And then there was this little place in the corner with some plant-based options. So there’s a lot of white space in the market.
But I realize that’s a cop-out answer, so I’ll be specific: the thing I wish I had almost every day would be clean eggs and/or clean cheese. In other words, chicken eggs made without the chicken and cheese from cow’s milk produced without the cow. This is what Clara Foods and Perfect Day are working on bringing to market.
Your book has the unique distinction of containing “more Brussels sprout jokes than any business book in history.” Can you give us a taste of your Brussels sprout wit?
Okay, so for context, I never had a Brussels sprout until I got to college, and they were always served boiled – no seasoning or anything. They smelled terrible. They looked terrible. They were inedible. But every night that we had Brussels sprouts, you knew it was food fight night: they were such perfect weapons for throwing. So I can’t help but poke fun at Brussels sprouts. And without further ado…
Oh no! Yes, it isn’t easy being Brassica.
Dear reader, please note that Brad assures me he has enjoyed some fantastic roasted Brussels sprouts since his college days. Nevertheless, the healing process is long.