Before becoming the co-founder of GROW, Christine worked at Meat & Livestock Australia for 20 years where she headed up their Donor Company Innovation Investment Fund, investing annually more than $100 million in a diverse portfolio of innovations targeting the whole paddock to plate value chain. At the same time, she built a global ecosystem of investors, corporates, researchers, and innovation partners including accelerators and incubators.
“While in this role I became exposed to how critical startups and entrepreneurs are in bringing disruptive technologies into industries that can sometimes be conservative when it comes to embracing change,” she tells AFN.
Christine wasn’t always focused on agriculture however, having cofounded a number of risk management and consulting companies previously, but always working at the interface of people and new technology, so the challenge facing MLA in organising itself to develop and explore disruptive technologies was of clear interest.
“I was fortunate to lead some very significant change programs that introduced new transformational technologies; helped reshape how innovation was managed at both the individual company and across whole industry sectors; and commercialising many first-to-market innovations and new products. Being involved in a major export industry with a massive need and strong desire for change was a challenge but very exciting and gave me the chance to work at a truly global level”.
We caught up with Christine to find out more about her views on technology in the food and ag industry and some of the challenges entrepreneurs should look to solve.
What were some of the biggest takeaways from your career at MLA?
One of the first things I learned at MLA was that new technologies will not get adopted if end-customers are not engaged early in the development process. I found, often the hard way, that before investing in technologies it is important to ensure real problems are understood and solutions are addressing customer painpoints in a way that is relevant and easy to apply. This seems pretty obvious now, and is certainly the mantra of the lean startup approach we use at GROW, but I am often surprised at how often tech developers (both big and small) miss this fundamental.
Another thing I realised while working across the red meat value chain was that large corporates are really struggling with how to do things differently so that they can respond fast enough to the rapidly changing environment in which they operate. Not only do they need to develop more agile processes and mindsets internally, they also have to work out how to attract a very different talent pool of entrepreneurs into the industry. It is pretty obvious that ag+food tech startups are going to play a big role in creating the future of the agri-food sector. I think corporates from across the sector will need to jump on board and find better ways to engage and learn from the startup community.
Ultimately my biggest takeout was realising that to achieve all of the things we needed to, we had to create a fully functional ag+food ecosystem that was global in its reach and that included all the players that would need to work together whether it be commercial industry; big corporates; researchers; tech developers; startups; investors; accelerators; government; everyone! This is now how I now approach all of the big challenge areas that I enjoy working on – looking at what is needed at the big-picture level and working across the ecosystem to build deeper capabilities at all levels and to facilitate a culture and capacity for individuals within the system to find ways to collaborate and partner for mutual benefit.
Why did you leave MLA to start GROW among your other initiatives?
Twenty years was way longer than I intended staying, but I got seduced by the massive opportunity to make a difference across a very broad innovation portfolio. By the time I finished my last role as CEO of MLA Donor Company, which we had grown to become a $100 million a year innovation investment fund, I felt satisfied that I had made an impact in many key areas of building capability and introducing new technologies and innovations – and so I was ‘good to go’.
I had also begun to see the enormous opportunity (and exciting possibilities) of working specifically with entrepreneurs and disruptors and I wanted to spend more of my time in this space. I felt I could share some of my experience and learnings with new ag+food entrepreneurs who are passionate about changing the status quo and at the same time become energised and encouraged myself by their optimism and desire to make an impact. Fundamentally I enjoy working on big challenges with exciting and fast-moving individuals – I like designing and building new things – and particularly growing new businesses.
What are the biggest challenges facing the foodtech and agtech industries today?
There are many but some I am thinking about at the moment are:
How do we help the broader investment community ‘get’ agrifood, including what makes it different to other tech investment areas? How do we work with large agrifood corporates to help them to engage with the startup community in ways that are mutually beneficial and capitalise on their respective strengths rather than either ‘big swallowing small’ or ‘big’ thinking they can be exactly like ‘small’?
How do we make sure that across the sector we have a balanced investment portfolio between technologies that help producers and agrifood businesses ‘defend core business’ (focus on productivity gains) versus technologies that address some of the big global challenges of food waste and food security; reducing environmental impact; increasing diversity in our food system; and producing food that enhances human health rather than destroying it?
What are the innovations in business models (not just technologies) along the value chain that will ensure we have an ethical, transparent system that delivers value back to producers and greater transparency to consumers?
Why are you so excited about the potential for Singapore to be the Asian hub of food tech and agtech in the region?
Asia has always fascinated me because of its rich and diverse culture and the sense of adventure I experienced when travelling there from an early age. In more recent years I have come to see the enormous possibilities that the region presents for the Australian agrifood sector. It is a big and growing market that values the integrity that Australian products deliver and there is already a strong and sophisticated food culture. Singapore seems an obvious choice from which to launch a global ag+food tech play – it is close (and it feels very familiar); it has a very proactive and supportive government that understands the importance of new technologies and the role of startups in addressing some of the big food security and sustainability challenges we are all going to face; there is a young and well-educated pool of talent keen to work in this sector; and it has an amazing food culture. Singapore is an easy and friendly place to do business. It is well served with world-class infrastructure and financial systems and it is extremely well-positioned to become a gateway to the broader region. We see heaps of energy and more and more global players (and investors) being attracted to the region and we are very confident that we will be able to attract the best ag+food tech startups and entrepreneurs to come to GROW.
Having spent years working in the meat industry, what are your views of alternative meat products?
I don’t think my time with the meat industry has had any particular influence on how I view new alternative meat products. I have believed for some time that we need a much wider diversity of food products if we are going to solve some of the big challenges of food security; improved human health; and environmental sustainability. I believe alternative meat products – together with many other innovations – will play an important role in solving some of these issues. I am watching with interest to see how plant-based; cell-based; and other emerging options such as insect and algae will evolve. I don’t think it is clear yet where it will land in terms of the % of future proteins that will be in these new formats – but it is pretty clear they are here to stay and will form an integral part of the future of food.
What other food technologies particularly excite you?
There are so many interesting food technologies that are likely to shape what and how we buy and eat in the future – that is a hard question to answer. I actually think that foodtech will be a key contributor to some very significant societal changes in the future.
I am excited by how foodtech will help us to completely rethink how we feed the human population. Instead of striving to produce more and more food (with less and less natural resources and available land) we can now start to transform the way food will be grown — in labs; in and on buildings; under the ground; in tanks; and in perfectly balanced closed loop organic systems. Foodtech will also help us to reimagine how we can eliminate waste from across the value chain and how we can produce the most nutrient-dense food from every bit that is grown or raised.
And I am also hopeful that foodtech will be able to help us manage our often conflicting desire for natural, diverse and responsible foods which make a positive contribution to our health on the one hand – with our equally strong desire for convenience, immediate gratification, and indulgent food experiences that in the past have not been conducive to either positive health or environmental outcomes.