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Posted By Administration, Thursday, November 20, 2014

Francis Gouillart, President of the Co-Creation Experience Partnership; Steve Whalley, MEMS Industry Group, Chief Strategy Officer

The MEMS and sensor industry is at a crossroads, as 250 of its senior managers witnessed at the recent MEMS Industry Group Executive Congress held in Scottsdale, AZ. Like other early-stage industries, it can develop into a large, vibrant and innovative ecosystem. This is the good news. More frequently, though, promising industries turn into marginal backwaters of the economy we later refer to as “niches” or “specialty areas”, with little growth or innovation, largely because incumbent players make it so. This is the bad news.

These two diametrically opposed outcomes are not the result of some inexorable law of industry evolution. They are the result of the collective behavior of the early-stage industry’s actors, and of their willingness or refusal to engage with leading-edge customers in a process we call “co-creation.” In other words, the industry has the power to control its own destiny, but this requires a profound transformation of its traditional way of doing business. Not doing anything would be worst of all.

Let us take the agriculture and food value chain as an example, although the same principles would similarly apply to our energy, health or water issues. The first challenge is to be able to create food for 9 billion people by 2050, which represents a 69% production increase vs. today. Worse yet, the ag-food chain has settled in an industry structure that is dominated by a few players and generally low on innovation, making it unlikely that we will be able to feed 9 billion people by doing more of the same. Our challenge is also a whole lot bigger than volume and agricultural yield. Ideally, our food should be good-tasting, affordable, abundant, nutritious, traceable, local, as free as possible from chemicals, utilize as little energy and water as possible, treat animals humanely, sustain the land, and generate good returns for all players along the chain, including farmers in all parts of the world, allowing many of them to lift out of poverty.  It would also have lots of start-ups at each stage, sparking innovation and contributing to the migration of the old value chain to this new model.

Sadly, the ag-food value chain has largely settled into a pattern where our food is bland, expensive, of low nutritional value, and chemically-treated, demands a lot of energy and water, treats animals badly, and exhausts our land though monoculture. The value in that chain has largely been “confiscated” by manufacturers of Western seed, chemicals, farm equipment, traders, food manufacturers and retailers who generate good returns from this “locked in” value chain and control any innovation that would result into transforming the existing value chain into the new model. As a result, the ag-food chain is a flat, un-innovative, transaction-oriented industry, and the world is a worse place as a result.

Enter MEMS and sensors. The MEMS and sensor industry has the power to transform the global ag-food value chain and make it into the vibrant ecosystem it ought to be. In the vein of Peter Diamandis’ Abundance book we dream of MEMS and sensor technology companies coming out of their technological shadow, and engaging progressive farmers, foodies and chefs in all parts of the world, co-creating with them prototypes of the future sensor-enhanced transparent value chain for fish, meat, dairy, fruit, vegetable, beer or wine, and forcing incumbents to loosen their grips on the stale value chain of yesteryear. We dream of ordering a steak in a restaurant in Boston or Phoenix and being able to tell reliably on which ranch the animal was raised, whether it was given vaccines or antibiotics, how it was fed, how it was slaughtered, how the rest of the animal was used, how long the meat was aged, at what temperature it was kept and how it achieved this wonderful marbling and great taste in our dinner plate. Most importantly, we want the breeder, cattle rancher, slaughterhouse, restaurant owner, chef and consumer to use this data to build predictive models of good steak quality and collectively participate in the development of the new, more virtuous beef ecosystem we all aspire to.

This transformation will not happen by having MEMS and sensor companies go hat-in-hand to large incumbent cattle ranchers, slaughterhouses, beef traders, distributors and retailers, and ask them to put sensors at all stages of the chain and help us “follow the beef.” These incumbents have no business investing into transparency of the chain: they will tell you all this technology would do is raise their cost and besides, customers do not demand it. Although they won’t tell you, their greatest fear is that this would expose the dirty secrets of the industrial beef chain. This transformation will happen if MEMS and sensor companies engage “new wave” chefs and foodies who passionately love beef and have already developed relationships with progressive local cattle farmers who share the same view of sustainable beef. In the early stages, the market for these “enlightened” chefs, foodies and progressive farmers will be small in comparison to the industrial beef market, but foodies will convert the larger consumer market, the chef trend-setters will create a benchmark that the core of the restaurant market will soon have to follow, and new wave farmers will set a model that public authorities will demand from all farmers before too long.

The MEMS and sensor industry needs to think big, yet smart small, with very local experiments. We dream of MEMS and sensor experiments involving seafood in Boston, beef in Dallas or Buenos Aires, lettuce in San Francisco, cacao in Côte d’Ivoire, wine in Australia and cabbage in China. Each of these experiments constitutes a “sliver” of the larger ecosystem, and MEMS and sensor companies will have to prove success at that micro-level. We visualize co-creation workshops with a few well-known local chefs and their customers challenging local farmers to partner with MEMS and sensor technology companies in designing data-driven experiments aimed at defining what drives taste and affordability in the chosen agricultural product. We dream of open data sets where local computer science students develop predictive algorithms for food taste in partnership with foodies and chefs, where agricultural programs identify next practices from the data, and where local elected officials view MEMS and sensors as the backbone of their town’s future collaborative work programs involving agriculture and food.


There is some slowly growing evidence of this co-creation occurring, for example with the Steinbeck initiative between the Silicon Valley’s technology community and the Salinas Valley’s agricultural community in California, where some financial money is being raised to design experiments across the technology-ag-food chain in partnership with some public entities. The other good news is that the venture capital industry, traditionally focused on technology, is increasingly interested in agriculture and food, which has not historically been the case, possibly creating new sources of money for ecosystem-wide funding.

The time to act is now. On the supply side, the MEMS and sensor technologies are coming of age with higher volumes, lower costs and power, and we saw several promising new technologies relevant to agriculture and food at MEMS Executive Congress in Scottsdale, with a lot more to be developed. On the demand side, every major parts of the world has a group of chefs, food leaders and farmers who want to transform this long dormant value chain into a vibrant innovative ecosystem. Most of them do not yet know what MEMS and sensors can do for them. The MEMS and sensor industry has a moral duty to engage them and show them the art of the possible. Together, we can change the world of agriculture and food as we know it. 

If you are a MEMS and sensor company with technologies pertinent to the food-ag supply chain and interested in developing co-creation further in this area, please contact Stephen Whalley at swhalley@memsindustrygroup.org and Francis Gouillart at fgouillart@eccpartnership.com

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