Posts Tagged ‘Cambridge’

A Technology Ratatouille at TedX Cambridge

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

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Last Thursday, the organizer of the Ted X Cambridge conference invited our Internet of Tomatoes team to feature the prototype technology developed by our lead sponsor, Analog Devices, and become the centerpiece of the event’s Innovation Lab (see two preceding entries in this blog for a description of the project). We turned out to be mobbed all evening, with some of the geeky Cambridge crowd heading straight for the prototype devices and farm data displays, while foodies gravitated toward the new local tomato sauce offered by Heritage Food Truck Catering, or wanted to palm the beautiful heirloom tomatoes displayed by Wards Berry Farm in Sharon. Many were curious to find out what this strange mix of science, agriculture and food was about. And of course, this was the idea …

As the evening progressed, and since tomatoes were in the air, I started thinking of the development of Internet of Things technologies as the equivalent of a ratatouille. Throw some tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, squash, onions, and garlic into a large pan with a bit of olive oil, let it simmer for hours, try it, add some herbes de Provence, try again, throw in more stuff, invite a few friends, get them to tell you what’s missing, have them bring those ingredients from their garden, and let them recruit other people excited about coming and sharing in your gastronomical production.

Technology development, like ratatouille, is no longer about creating a recipe in the lab and following a step-by-step process: it’s a series of culinary jam sessions happening over time, as the technology team moves from farm to farm and kitchen to kitchen, and the team fuses new components in reaction to what it learns at each event. Each public session is a performance, and each session acts as a forcing function for the technology development. Marketing people force the technologists to deliver at fixed intervals of time rather than meander as butterflies in the orchard of knowledge, which would be their natural tendency.

In the new co-creation approach, scientists still need to be technically irreproachable and (minimally) rehearsed, but a lot of the technology development happens in real time, with the marketing staff asking the technologists more and more anxiously, as the event gets closer, “whether the demo will be ready in time”. The answer is always yes, and miracles nearly always occur. At TedX, some of the actual fusion occurred on stage in the hour that preceded the beginning of the show (“does this conference offer Internet access?”). The best integrated narrative across farmers, chefs and scientists was developed on the fly, led by questions from visitors.

Watching my two brilliant Analog Devices technology colleagues in action at TedX, I found myself reflecting on how much personal transformation will be required of traditional scientists to move from developer of a traditional cook book recipe to becoming an improv’ artist able to engage others in preparing a large-scale meal where an entire community makes a contribution. This is what an Internet of Things project is like. It involves building a community of interested people adopting a common platform and set of data to change an entire ecosystem. Yes, the same engineering skills and ability to solve complex technical problems are still needed, but IoT scientists also have to develop an interpersonal ability to engage lay people, make the science accessible to them and get them on the collective road to discovery. In a world where scientists are called extroverts when they look at the other scientist’s shoe instead of their own, this represents a considerable challenge…

Being in Cambridge for TedX also reminded me of ratatouille because this is where Julia Child was from and her ratatouille recipe is my favorite (a statement which will undoubtedly cause my French country fellowmen to disown me). The best ratatouilles are inextricably linked to the personalities of their creators, and her infectious enthusiasm still brings a smile to my face whenever I think of her. The same is true for IoT technologies. Most of the fun for the public at TedX was in engaging live with the technologists describing the agony of sending data to the cloud when most farms have no Internet, the farmers describing the anxiety of the potential arrival of late blight, or the chefs waxing eloquent on the challenge of removing water from the pasta sauce when you use New England heirlooms instead of plum tomatoes.

Products are no longer the mysterious output of behind-the-curtain development processes. The technology kitchen is now wide open to the public, and customers want to acknowledge the artistry of scientists, just like they recognize the food artistry of great chefs. In the future, companies will have to become talent agents for their best scientists and market their personalities as an integral part of their value proposition on an equal footing with their products (the scientists and their oeuvre). And the best of them will have to learn to rock on the stages of technology festivals.

Sadly, the tomato season is now over, and I will have to either fly to the Southern Hemisphere or wait until next summer for ratatouille. Or better yet, I’ll talk my scientist colleagues into launching an Internet of Potatoes project to continue jamming together this fall and winter. I’m having too much fun.

Growing up foodie

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

mom_kid_veggies-1One of the joys of running a food incubator is to pick the entrepreneurs you like and go the extra mile for them on a whim. Today, I’m meeting Elena, a young Bulgarian mother who recently launched a prepared meals business for kids called Tiny Foodies . She and her husband prepare and deliver cold and hot foods for child care centers in the Boston area. As she is just signing up to work out of our commissary in Malden, Massachusetts, we start talking about who she is and what she wants to accomplish.

In her day job, Elena is a manager who analyzes medical claims data and tries to generate insights that reduce the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors.  Her language is cold and left-brained. She describes the nutritional problems of young kids in America whose parents default to the pizza, peanut-butter-jelly sandwich and mac-and-cheese routine that will lead children to premature obesity and diabetes. I smell a Michelle Obama zealot who wants the kids pizza to be whole wheat and vegetable-laden, only to end up on the compost pile. I move to “let’s just collect the rent” mode.

There is something endearing about Elena, though. She has the modesty of her native Bulgaria and seeks advice. She has beautiful eyes that light up when she talks about kids and food. Not the calories of food, but the joy of food. Her particular passion is spices and she can wax lyrical about cumin. She rapidly moves from Morocco to India to Bulgaria, wondering why kids outside the US eat couscous and hummus, while American kids don’t. She wants to expand the palate of young American kids by getting them to try healthy, spicy foods at a young age, because this is what her mother did for her. She has a three year old boy of her own, and whether he likes it or not, he’s the food lab for the enterprise.

Elena’s problem is creating engagement with her customers and prospects. Her web site sells to individual parents (mostly mothers) using different child care centers, and she ends up delivering a small number of meals to widely scattered child care centers over the greater Boston area, which is clearly not economically viable. She also receives minimal feedback on what kids and parents think of the food. To explore new options, I encourage her to organize a live event with one of the child care centers she supplies, but she’s not sure she’s comfortable putting herself out in this fashion. I offer to be there for moral support, she rallies two of her young mother friends from Bulgaria to round up the protective squadron, and we agree to focus on one particular child care center in Cambridge. She suggests we conduct a session with kids, parents and teachers at pick-up time, while providing samples of the food.

As parents arrive to pick their kids on a cold and rainy Wednesday, we observe and ask a few questions on the fly. The child care center manager is our host and encourages parents and children to try the food. The dry nutritional agenda of American kids turns into a rich tapestry of kids, parents, teachers and child care center manager interacting to discover what foods children are prepared to eat at this particular moment.

Food itself matters, we discover. Kids are more adventurous than Elena had been led to believe from teachers report-outs (one of them in another child care center even suggested to a parent who had ordered from the Tiny Foodies menu that she send a PB& J sandwich as back-up, in case the kid did not like the food!). Many kids grab the bite-size food and convey enthusiasm without any encouragement. Lentils are a universal hit and solid foods are preferred to soups because soups are messy and require more teacher oversight. We even meet a two-year old girl who loves bok choy.

Even more important, though, is the human environment through which the food is offered. When parents eat the food, kids are much more willing to try it (we imagine that teachers could play the same role if we provided them with matching food). One Latin American mom silently stares her son down while holding the food in front of him for what appears to be five minutes. The kid finally gives up, reluctantly tries the food, asks for two more pieces, then wants to take the entire food bar home. We learn that mother’s toughness matters.

These mothers are all professional women who work in corporate offices near Kendall Square in Cambridge, and many of them were born outside the US. Two of them explain that they cook their kids’ meals on Sundays, then refrigerate or freeze them, but typically run out of food by Friday. They suggest that Elena talk to the child care center about making Friday a Tiny Foodies day for the whole center, equivalent to Pizza Day on Thursday, which would also help Elena concentrate her deliveries. As we approach 6 pm, the end of the pick-up window for parents, kids are so hungry they’ll try anything, and we run out of food. We learn that letting kids go a little hungry is an effective way to expand their palate, something that European, Asian and Latin American mothers have long known.

At some point, we’re joined by one of the teachers.  She’s everything you want a teacher to be, gentle, compassionate, curious and kid-loving. Although other teachers reserve their meal for a break away from the hubbub of the kid’s lunch time, she likes to lunch with the kids because she can role-model eating, can compare her food to the kids’ food, and create improvised little pedagogical modules about the fact that three kids brought bananas, a Japanese kid brought sushi, or a Latin American kid brought vegetable tortillas. We start dreaming of inviting these high-powered professional mothers of the world and some teachers to co-create with us the future menu of Tiny Foodies. We also learn that teachers are responsible for providing snacks twice a day, and they are so busy that they often default to cheese and crackers because these items can be stored easily and require no additional labor, vs., say, avocados which need peeling. Perhaps snacks could also be part of Tiny Foodies’ offering at some point?

At that moment, I realize I am in the right place. Although I advise several governments around the world on various matters, I am convinced the problem of kids’ food and health will never be sold by policy and nutritional standards coming out of Washington, D.C. It will come from food entrepreneurs such as Elena experimenting with individual child care centers, their kids, parents and teachers, and solving the problem at that micro-level. Eventually, some of those entrepreneurs will be able to scale their business and one or two of them will go on to transform the kiddie food chain in America. (At that stage, the government will have a useful role to play).

Elena and her business have a long way to go before she can claim to change the food world. But for one moment on that cold and rainy evening in Cambridge, I catch her proud little smile observing the kids eating her food. She starts asking more questions from parents and teachers on what she should think of next.  I can see her self-confidence grow. Watch it, world. Elena is spreading her wings.