Thad Simons has worked in corporate and venture capital settings in ag and animal health and now heads up The Yield Lab Institute, which is presenting Space for Food. Thad talks about why innovation in controlled environment ag, cellular ag and alternative proteins, sustainable and regenerative ag and circular growing economies are so important, and why he hopes Space for Food extends the impact of the Deep Space Food Challenge across the planet with greater support for controlled environment ag (CEA).
What are you doing in your work?
AgTech venture capital as founder of The Yield Lab which has a portfolio of over 50 companies and investments in 12 countries and staff in 7 countries, We see hundreds of applications every year and are actively tracking well over a thousand. We also support open innovation around sustainability issues with The Yield Lab Institute, which has over the past 2 years supported about 20 innovators through mentoring programs and awarded about $500,000 in non-dilutive funds and services to them.
What prepared you for what you're doing?
I had a successful career in a major global animal nutrition company. When I exited, I understood the challenges of introducing innovations into the traditional ag systems. I looked for opportunities to support Agrifood Tech innovation to drive more sustainable, affordable food availability. The Yield Lab was my next venture, raising a fund, building a team and deploying funds to innovators all over the world. Next came the Yield Lab Institute, a non-profit think tank that allowed us to form innovation partnerships and programs that weren’t directly tied to an investment. The two together have opened up opportunities to work with many stakeholders in the agrifood value chain including innovators, farmers, ag trade associations, nonprofits, governments, international organizations, universities and corporates. We focus on challenges facing sustainable agriculture and food production and we identify technologies that have been developed in another field and bring it to ag or developed for a developed country market and bring it to developing countries more rapidly.
What's an indicator that a food system (or space habitat) is working for the people in it?
It’s about the health of the people - the producers, partners in the supply chain, and consumers - whether in conventional ag, new areas like alternative proteins or controlled environment ag (CEA). It is everything from aquaculture to vertical farms with a strong focus on the digitalization of ag and food production and supply .
What is the most interesting work going on right now in your area?
The microbiome. There’s a lot of interesting activity worldwide in understanding how people, millions of microbial species, and the environment interact in surprising ways. We’re lucky in St. Louis, where I live, to have a lot of active research in human and plant microbiomes, and I chair the board of a company working in the animal health space.
What innovation outside your direct area is most interesting to you?
Digital connectivity and information for farmers. Tech is often proposed to growers and people in the ag value chain by startups and investors who don’t understand the actual needs of the space or the practical constraints of using the tech. We at The Yield Lab try to work with these entrepreneurs to develop more producer centered technology solutions that give more isight not only to on farm applications but also a better view and access to the ultimate market..
What problem related to Space for Food most needs to be addressed?
Elimination of waste. We have to stop thinking about outputs of food production as something to be disposed of - we have to think more circularly. The Yield Lab Institute’s Manure Challenge was a great example of driving innovation in this area, not just looking at the waste problem, but also addressing it by adding new value and caring for water resources. Space is the ultimate controlled growing environment and resources are even more precious there than on Earth - innovations for space can really help CEA on Earth.
Who is doing the most interesting work in your area (other than you, of course!)?
I'd probably point to the rapid access to mobile phones and internet globally which is leveling the playing field for farmers of any scale. We aren't there yet but many of the leading technologies are taking us back to a more loca,l sustainable production model
What's your favorite food, space, or ag memory?
Working in several countries in Africa, I could see the adoption of technology and the creative ways that farmers could benefit from technology like phone based electronic money transfer systems. We need to continue to support the rapid deployment of new technology not only to large scale farmers but to all farmers worldwide.
What inspires or recharges you?
Innovators and entrepreneurs inspire me. When NASA launched the Deep Space Food Challenge with the Canadian Space Agency, we saw an opportunity to further support the innovators applying to it to make sure their work makes an impact even after the DSFC ends. With the Institute, we help bring together and support innovators across ag, tech, food, supply chain, and local economies year round and year after year. We wanted to play a role in helping connect innovators leading up to today with what can happen after the DSFC and beyond.