“It’s absolutely a number one priority to cooperate with startups to create an environment where we can facilitate private investments, where we can secure the founders to found their companies in our country and can finance them in our country. So that’s of utmost importance.”
(Federal Chancellor of Austria Christian Kern)
This year was my first time attending a Pioneers festival at the beautiful Hofburg and while I was very curious, I only had a rough idea of what to expect. The main reason for me being there was the interview I had scheduled with Caleb Harper, one of this year’s speakers. He is the Principal Investigator and Director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. Harper leads a diverse group of engineers, architects and scientists in the exploration and development of future food systems. Caleb’s research is focused on the areas of control environment design, actuated sensing, control automation and data‐driven resource, energy and biologic optimization. He has already done two TED talks, one on TED Global and one on TEDxBeaconStreet, which attracted our attention to his field of research and made us request the interview in the first place.
Before meeting with Caleb I had the opportunity to wander the halls of the 500-year-old Hofburg Imperial Palace which provided a beautiful setting for this very modern event concentrating on start-ups and future technologies.
Celebrating its 5th anniversary in 2016, the Pioneers Festival team has made some changes to the event in order to enhance the experience, value, and quality for the participants. This was the first time participants had to apply to attend the event. Founders Andreas Tschas and Jürgen Furian explain their vision for the event: “This invite-only approach ensures that the top quality startups, corporates, and investors are present, thus business relationships can be created that are truly beneficial for all. We create a world where tech innovators have the network to succeed.”
“Pioneers’ mission is to inspire, empower and connect tech pioneers to create a prosperous future. As a platform for future technologies and entrepreneurship, we are constantly exposed to and inspired by revolutionary and game-changing technologies and individuals.”
Not only is this an event where start-ups and potential investors can meet on equal footing but the Pioneers Festival also provides an exhibition area where startups and businesses can showcase their products and work. Around 2500 people visited this year’s festival and numerous speakers talked about their revolutionary projects and ideas. Of the 2863 applicants, 500 start-ups were given the opportunity to present themselves to hopefully be selected as the “pioneer of the year”. (You can find the seven finalists here.) There was much to see, learn and experience during the two full days devoted to the future of technology and entrepreneurship. Check out some of the awesome event videos.
Fun side note:
Do you know who King Midas was? I came across his name many times both at the Pioneers Festival and while doing research on investors prior to the event. In Greek Mythology King Midas is remembered for “The Golden Touch” or “The Midas Touch” referring to his ability to turn everything he touches into gold. This term is therefore often used to describe investors with the right instincts to detect potentially successful projects.
Changing the way we eat with Caleb Harper
My actual interview with Caleb Harper takes place only minutes after he left the festival stage and although I am sure this had been a long day for Mr. Harper he is in the best mood. He starts the conversation by telling me that his TED(x) talks really helped him to condense his ideas and that he encourages his students and team members to take every opportunity to do their own talk and have the same experience.
Caleb Harper is an architect, but coming from a background where his parents were farmers he managed to apply his knowledge about designing controlled environments, for example in hospitals, to the field of agriculture. Since agriculture is a hugely important factor in human society and will be responsible for feeding a billion people more in the next ten years, Harper is interested in how the nutritional demands of this ever growing population can be met. What drives him personally was a trip to Fukushima after the atomic accident, where the farmland was vastly contaminated and people had no interest in farming or in becoming farmers anymore.
Happy plants by design
At the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture (“OpenAg”) Haper assembled a multi-disciplinary team consisting of plant scientists, engineers, computer scientists, chemists, urban planners and many more and took on the scientific challenge to build an agricultural data centre. The mission of the data centre was to bring out the farmer in everyone by creating a healthier, more engaging and more inventive food system, the food computer. “Climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature are among the many conditions that can be controlled and monitored within the growing chamber“, he explains. „The goal was to build a world wide agricultural data collection centre, so everybody can become a farmer.” Harper and his team provide the instructions and all the necessary knowledge to build a food computer oneself and be able to harvest and eat you own veggies in short time.
A billion more farmers
“The first aim was to build a data repository with all the plants on the planet and be able to build the perfect environment for each”, Harper tells me. The second aim was to create a billion more farmers and thereby broaden the term. In Harper’s terms a farmer is not only the person who physically runs a farm but also someone who can bring all kinds of skills to the table. A scientist or a chemist can be a farmer by using his/her particular skill to contribute to the farming process. “It was easy to engage people to take part in this project. When you use people’s skills they feel they can do something and so I had contributors from various fields, sectors and industries, from teachers to chefs to flavor scientists and many many more”.
Grow it here and eat it here
It is crucial to Harper that no chemicals are being used, with the plants being grown only by creating their optimal environments in the lab. This is not only efficient in terms of cost and resources but also raises the plant’s nutritional factors. Since these veggies are consumed right where they grow, they have a low carbon footprint.
Despite of his revolutionary ideas and approaches concerning the future of our food, Harper is very aware that “The answer to feeding a billion more people is a joint approach. We need traditional farmers. I think of our project as just another type of farming, which does not replace the conventional farming but will make us all a bit more aware of the food we eat and probably be more efficient about it.”
Could the fish market, or even the meat market, be revolutionized by Caleb Harper’s approach to control environment design, data‐driven resource, energy and biologic optimization? We will keep you updated!