Imagine going to your favorite smoothie bar and lchecking the menu, looking for something new and interesting to try. You spot a flavor labeled ‘Pumpkin Spice Papaya Turmeric‘ and think – how could that possibly taste good? But you give it a shot since you’re a foodie who loves exotic sounding names, and lo and behold, it actually tastes pretty fine. Makes you wonder, how in the world did they come up with this combination?
If you thought a brilliant chef concocted this in a restaurant kitchen, you’d be wrong.
This hit flavor was created by a ‘food innovation intelligence platform’, which basically uses Artificial Intelligence to build a virtual ‘food brain.’
“It’s like combining the experience of the greatest chefs and food critics around the globe with food scientists, food ethnographers, (folks who plot how food interacts with culture and behavior) specialty and niche food communities and online chat groups which may have as few as a thousand members, food commerce platforms, etc. A billion disparate points of data are extracted from this wealth of foodie information and connections are made which actually predict future trends at the embryonic stage, almost before they happen. With Spoonshot’s input, food industry clients can have a head start on the food trends bandwagon. All that data is also used to innovate new food and flavors which have the greatest chance of succeeding in the marketplace, like our pumpkin spice papaya turmeric smoothie.”
“We are in the business of trying to predict future trends before they go mainstream,” Vasani tells me. “Companies spend enormous amounts on research before launching a new food, but their methodology hasn’t changed over the past several decades. The success rate for new food launched in the marketplace is often between 10 and 30%. Our technology, which requires much less investment, is poised to increase that rate significantly.”
Food trends often originate from a particular chef or restaurant in a certain town or country: how it becomes a global trend is what Spoonshot’s technology tracks.
Quinoa was an Andean staple that grew popular at the same time as gluten-free, high protein food became attractive. It’s the perfect alternative to rice or bread for a population rife with gluten allergies and obesity. Today, there is a shift towards veganism and food which is ethically produced, climate friendly and good for the environment.
For example, Spoonshot, (in collaboration with International Food Trendologist Liz Moskow), has come up with a future food trends list which includes Silverfin fishcakes made from wild caught US Asian carp. Asian carp is an invasive species of fish that is threatening the Mississippi river, and for environmentally conscious consumers, the environmental impact of eating this carp is just as important as the taste. Food with a low carbon footprint like legumes, pulses, grains seaweed and algae are going to appear more often on restaurant menus and in everyday cooking.
“Interest in environmentally conscious food has grown 55% in the last year alone,” Vasani says.
A good example of an environmentally friendly vegan alternative to dairy, is ice-cream made from Aquafaba, the water chickpeas are soaked in. It may not sound scrumptious but it’s actually quite delicious, and is predicted to trend in the future. Since meat alternatives are increasingly popular, vegetarians are going to see more of Carob-based products – Carob helps provide much needed collagen for muscle health to those who don’t eat any animal products.
The Covid19 pandemic has also produced an almost seismic shift towards comfort foods. Anxiety is at an all-time high and foods containing the essential oil Copaiba, from the Copaifera tree, which produces relaxation are likely to be popular.
The most engaging part of Vasani’s story is his entrepreneurial journey, and his resilience, especially with facing the latest Covid fiasco. He grew up in England where his father ran a grocery store. There was a subconscious emphasis on food which he says comes from his Gujarati roots: dinner time was always the central hub of the family.
He joined a retail bank after a degree in business from Aston University (UK), but found the pace too slow for his entrepreneurial itch. This was the early 2000’s, the era of rising digital media platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon. Against his parents’ advice he launched his own digital marketing agency in 2006.
“My parents gave me a year,” he says. “I was 22 years old and felt I had these ideas about personalizing a service product the way Facebook and Amazon were personalizing consumer experiences.
It was a rollercoaster ride. He eventually wound up his business and joined Just Eat, the European food ordering platform that acquired Grubhub in June, 2020.
However, the drive to be a self-made entrepreneur proved overwhelming. After a couple of years he left and, along with his friend Sai Sreenivas, created a business model that eventually led to the concept of Spoonshot. Initial investors were friends and relatives, before outside financing began to roll in.
“Twice in the last five years we’ve been left with a week’s worth of money in the bank. The last time it was around Covid. We were about to close a round of funding and then Covid blew up around the country and our investor pulled out at the last minute,” Vasani recalls.
“This happened on a Saturday” he says. “We were so demoralized that we decided to shut everything down. Five years of grueling work and innovation would go down the drain, quite apart from the 20 full time employees we had in Bangalore. That was one of our worst days.”
“On Sunday, both of us woke up and seemed to be hit by the same motivation at the same time – we were not going to let a tiny virus beat us and negate all our hard work over the past five years. We decided we were not going to fire anyone; our company model believes in complete transparency with our employees, so we told them our dire financial situation. Some decided to leave, and some stayed. But no employees left because of Covid or our financial situation. One left to start their own business, and one left to pursue a PhD. We spent the next few days going to our network to secure emergency funding. We took 50% pay cuts but we steadied the ship.”
The sucker punch of Covid19 has not dimmed his enthusiasm or his spirit of entrepreneurship.
“We’ve put everything on the line, cashed out all our savings and made enormous sacrifices,” he says. “The economy will recover, and we’ll be ready.”
In August Spoonshot overcame Covid19 by securing $1M in seed funding.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents