Christine Gould – Founder & CEO – Thought For Food
Christine is a global leader in agri-food-tech innovation. In 2020, Christine was invited by the UN Deputy Secretary-General to serve on the Advisory Committee for the UN Food Systems Summit. She also sits on various boards, including on reNature Foundation’s Board of Advisors. Christine holds an MPA in Science and Technology Policy from Columbia University, and is the author of the book “The Change-makers Guide to Feeding the Planet” (2021).
As the founder of Thought For Food, you work at the intersections of science, technology and sustainable food and agriculture – could you share a bit about what has driven and inspired you along the way, and shaped your journey? What are the core values, philosophies and ideas that motivate and inspire your work?
When I hear this question, there are a couple of books that pop into my mind as having influenced my thinking: Wikinomics and Grown Up Digital, both by Don Tapscott. These books talk about the power of mass collaboration to drive breakthrough innovation and how the next generations of digital natives will be an unprecedented force for transformational change in the world. I read these books at a time when I was working for a big agribusiness company, and I was becoming fed up with how hard and slow-moving it was to bring new ideas to life in the overarching construct of “business as usual.”
I joined the industry with an idealistic vision that I could make a positive difference in the world by advocating for radical openness, transparency and collaboration. I knew that the technologies and business models that were impacting other sectors – e.g. things like open source, sharing economy, DIY innovation, etc. – would eventually have dramatic implications in food and agriculture too, and I was excited to start to implement these approaches in my job so that we could see existing complex problems through a new lens of possibility.
But, reality turned out to be a little different than I had hoped. I soon realized how resistant to change this industry can be. And there are clear reasons why: the regulation that surrounds food and agriculture is extremely complex and any solutions in this sector need to be massively scalable before anyone pays attention to them. The average age of the world’s farmers is over 60 and agriculture is the least digitized industry sector there is. There is a concentration of power in the big companies and institutions, which leads to inertia. Back then, many of the industry experts I worked with believed that the innovations required to tackle global food challenges would only come from incumbents or from the expected innovation hubs like Silicon Valley.
They weren’t seeing what I was seeing — that some of the most exciting solutions were coming from outside the traditional systems and from unexpected players. I went on a quest to connect with these new players and to understand their ideas and approaches. Through this process, I came up with this crazy idea for a new role in my company and pitched it to my boss – and, luckily, she accepted it. I became the “Head of Next Generation Innovation,” which gave me the chance to spend my days connecting with really cool startups and disruptive technologies.
During this time, I also founded my non-profit organization Thought For Food, with a mission to engage, empower and invest in the next generations of purpose-driven innovators everywhere in the world. Due to the globally-connected, digital world in which our world’s young people have grown up, they tend to naturally possess many of the skills, perspectives and tools that we need to really shake things up. This wasn’t about engaging with youth because it’s the right thing to do. For me, it was more about empowering and learning from the next generations because it’s the smart thing to do. They were creating the future, and I wanted to be part of it.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about millennials and GenZ’s and many people ask me why I would want to work with these demographics. Entitled, lost, narcissistic, lazy, and high maintenance are just some of the ways our world’s young people are described by the media – and, let’s face it, when your generation’s defining word is “selfie,” it’s easy to jump to unfair conclusions about what your priorities are. But, there is another side to the story. By the numbers, Millennials and GenZs represent the largest, most well-educated, digitally-savvy, culturally diverse, politically-progressive, and socially-engaged generations that the world has ever seen. They are thinking and acting in open and collaborative ways; they’re used to navigating our extremely complex and ambiguous world full of constant change; and they’re putting purpose and impact at the core of how they do business. These generations are also hacking their way around traditional rules and hierarchies. They are tenacious in getting what they want, and are finding these really creative bootstrappy ways to get things done. We have the chance of a lifetime by empowering and working with them.
The challenge of feeding 10 billion people on a hotter planet is going to be their responsibility. And, since most of this demographic lives in developing countries, they have the potential to leapfrog ahead of existing entrenched systems. So, to me, the next generations are the exact people we should put at the center of innovation and our solution development process: they are open-minded, naturally-collaborative, purpose-driven innovators who have real skin in the game.
Through your work with Thought For Food, you work to support emerging entrepreneurs and innovators working across the world at the nexus of food, agriculture, science and technology. Could you tell us more about Thought For Food and how you see TFF contributing to building sustainable food futures? What are some of the most promising trends and innovations you’ve seen emerge across TFF platforms? How would you like to see the work of Thought For Food grow in the years ahead?
Thought For Food is the world’s entrepreneurial innovation engine for food and agriculture. We bring together diverse minds from all disciplines and all parts of the world, and we have created this unique process to get them to develop and share truly game-changing innovations through a process of global collaboration for local impact.
We run the largest innovation challenge in the space, the TFF Challenge, which attracts thousands of applicants each year from every region of the world. We also work with our corporate partners to run “topical challenges” to drive targeted innovation in areas of strategic interest to them. As some examples, we have worked with Google and Danone on the circular economy of food, with Cargill on making the restaurant industry more resilient, with DSM on nutrition in Africa, with GFI APAC on diversifying the supply chain for plant-based proteins, and we are now helping to promote the Novozymes MYCO Innovation Open Call We then select the best teams to go through our fit-for-purpose accelerator program, the TFF Academy. This program takes promising startups to the next level through a very hands-on program of mentorship and coaching focused on business model development, pitch coaching and of course creating positive, systemic impact.
Everything culminates with our TFF Summit, which has been dubbed the “SXSW of Food and Agriculture.” It is a really special event unlike anything you have seen before in the food and agriculture space. We unite visionary startups from around the world with corporate leaders, investors, policymakers and creatives to experience an immersive and thought provoking program, infused with electronic music and larger than life energy. Prizes from TFF and our partners are awarded to startups coming through the TFF Academy, and connections and ideas really take off. You can’t help but open your mind and heart to all of the possibilities for the future when you experience the TFF Summit.
As an example, we just held the 2021 TFF Summit on October 2nd in Rome in partnership with the UN FAO World Food Forum. Since we couldn’t bring the startup teams we worked with to be there in person, we decided to take a different approach. We created a movie called Generation Food, which told their stories in an uplifting, cinematic and broadly-appealing “made for Netflix” format. Our goal was to inspire, educate and entertain our audience, helping more people in more places to care about and understand the types of challenges facing our food and agricultural sector. You can watch the movie for free here: www.thoughtforfood.org or https://vimeo.com/623371971
More than 10,000 viewers in 120 countries tuned in to watch the movie and take part in the TFF Summit this year. Our TFF Community leaders organized 12 Satellite Summits around the world in places like Colombia, Brazil, the USA, India, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Nepal, Malaysia, Australia, and Mexico – and there were more than 4000 watch parties taking place in people’s homes. At a time where large in-person events are not possible, using this fresh hybrid format united people around the world, inspired both old and young, and boosted the featured startups to continue what they are doing with renewed vigour. Even though the people watching could not be in the same place, everyone felt connected and was tuning in to the same energy – creating a unique, authentic, family-like experience during the challenging times of this pandemic.
Something else that sets us apart is that from the very outset – and well before Covid forced this onto the world – we have been a digital-first organization. This is due to our work with the next generations, who, as mentioned, are digital natives creating and consuming pretty much everything online. Our digital ecosystem integrates into the platforms that next-gen innovators are already using, like WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord and Twitch.
We have also built the TFF Digital Labs as a first-of-its-kind collaboration tool offering world-class resources and masterclasses in areas like entrepreneurship, leadership, and science and technology, as well as direct access to peer collaborators and expert mentors. At TFF, we live life in “beta mode,” meaning that we are constantly experimenting and adjusting based on real-time feedback and changes in the market. This keeps us nimble, agile, and relevant.
There are many ways that we are contributing to sustainable food futures. First of all, through engagement, inspiration and action, we are creating a groundswell of momentum and change across the food and agriculture sector, which desperately needs it. We work not only with people already working or studying food, agriculture or related sciences, but also with architects, engineers, artists and designers. We purposefully seek out all kinds of people with all kinds of skills and perspectives, because with challenges so big and urgent, we need all hands on deck caring about, thinking about and taking action.
The TFF Community has grown to comprise 30,000 people – this is growing every year. Once we ignite their interest, we support these creative innovators in developing and accelerating their solutions no matter where they are in the world. Everything we do is free and digitally-available. And, we help to make sure these talents and their solutions can be successful by connecting them to jobs, partners and investment opportunities. In the past ten years, we have helped to launch more than 60 cutting-edge startups that have raised millions of dollars in capital, are creating hundreds of new jobs, and are working with industry leaders. In 2020, I joined the Advisory Committee of the UN Food Systems Summit, and with this opportunity, I was able to elevate and amplify the voices and needs of our next-gen community to world leaders.
In terms of trends, I think it is important to point out that by working with the next generations, we get a front row seat to see the future as it is being shaped. This is really exciting and a big opportunity for our partners too! As an example, we have been talking about alternative proteins and regenerative agriculture since 2011. We get signals in the market before trends become mainstream.
It is clear that the values that young people represent are taking root in the food system. They are calling for more transparency and traceability in supply chains, for decentralized structures, empowerment of smallholder and female farmers, and an increase in localization and diversity of foods and crops. They are also open to bringing together solution spaces that have previously been seen as at odds with each other – e.g. biotechnology and regenerative agriculture, or lab grown meat and veganism. A trend that I am personally diving headfirst into is the world of blockchain/smart contracts, NFTs, DAOs and crypto. There are some really interesting things happening at the moment that will fundamentally transform the world as we know it. We in the food and ag sector should be paying attention and even getting involved.
As we work toward the 2030 agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in building sustainable food futures? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities to fostering deeper collaboration across diverse industries and geographic food systems? What voices and perspectives are missing from global conversations and collaboration around sustainable food futures and how might we more actively engage them in collaboration?
The biggest challenges we have in building sustainable food systems is thinking and acting incrementally. I think they next generations can get us past that. Many of them have almost exclusively known a world in which all kinds of people, ideas, and a sea of information is available quickly at their fingertips. As a result, they naturally approach problem-solving on a grand scale – with an openness and audaciousness that those outside of their generations often don’t (or can’t) comprehend. They also naturally possess a mindset that helps them to transcend the nearsightedness that has historically plagued our problem-solving efforts. And as I watch this mindset in action at TFF, I truly believe that, no matter your generation, it can be learned. In my forthcoming book “The Changemakers Guide to Feeding the Planet”, I talk about the ways we can all adopt this next-gen innovation approach in what we do, no matter age, job or position in life. At TFF, we call this mindset “multispectral thinking.”
The name is inspired by multispectral imaging technology, which allows us humans to see wavelengths beyond our visible light range. Similarly, multispectral thinking pushes us to seek out and see new perspectives and influences that can uncover the hidden layers and vast color spectrum of creative innovation opportuntiies that we need in order to solve our most complex global challenges. Multispectral thinking recognizes that, when examining a problem, the more perspectives included, and the greater the diversity of those perspectives, the better the chances of uncovering a richer, holistic picture – including what isn’t apparent at first glance. As if we could attach a multispectral imaging sensor to our brains, it’s about having the courage to open our minds to understand the intricacies and complexities of the challenges we want to solve, and then pushing ourselves to “see beyond” so that we can uncover these hidden opportunities, and then act purposefully to maximize benefits and minimize any negatives.
The main skills associated with multispectral thinking are:
Seeking nuance: This includes being mindful of the media and information you consume, and actively seeking out new and underrepresented voices when you are thinking about issues;
Flipping dilemmas: This is about looking at issues from other vantage points. By using a lens from other domains, you can explore all kinds of scenarios and “what ifs?”
Building bridges: This is one of the hardest skills to master in today’s world. It is about being vulnerable, asking questions instead of providing answers, and actively listening. Most importantly, it is about keeping the bigger picture and end goal in mind instead of fighting for one point of view or one way to get there.
You can read more about the this mindset and the 6 attitudes of next generation innovation in this recent blog: https://thoughtforfood.org/content-hub/facilitating-the-behaviours-and-attitudes-of-future-food-systems-leaders/
There is a famous quote from Steve Jobs that I love, and that sums up the idea we are trying to normalize through our work at Thought For Food – that extraordinary things can happen by the action of ordinary people:
“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much…. But, life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
By working with the next generations and building TFF with them, I have been able to do things I never thought possible. And so my mission now is to help more people everywhere to understand the power they have to get involved, to join our supportive community and innovate and build better food systems. There is a bright future ahead for our work at Thought For Food, and we are excited for all that is to come as we continue to grow, collaborate, and unleash the power of next generation innovation into the world.
To learn more about Thought For Food, visit: https://thoughtforfood.org/