In fact, they’re all real business concepts that were discussed last weekend at the UT Food Lab’s “Food, the City, and Innovation” conference. In his keynote lecture, food innovator David Edwards said that while his food experiments may seem outlandish, they can eventually yield viable companies and—perhaps more importantly—get people thinking about the big picture of why, how, and what we eat.
“Experimenting in food will be to the next 20 years what the Internet was to the last 20 years,” Edwards told the crowd of more than 100 students, bloggers, researchers, and other food-minded folk who gathered at the Blanton Museum of Art on Feb. 1. A Harvard professor, Edwards also operates an avant-garde art-and-science laboratory in France, hosting engineers and chemists alongside sculptors and philosophers. “We’re getting ideas out there and watching how the public will react,” he said.
That description—sharing ideas and gauging public response—is an apt one for the Food Lab itself. Founded in 2011 by UT history lecturer Robyn Metcalfe, the Food Lab is not a physical laboratory. It’s a place for students, faculty, and even community members to do interdisciplinary research about food, as well as to support entrepreneurs’ food-related business ideas.
“Whether it’s nutrition and obesity, architecture and sustainability, the history of how cities were fed—there are pockets of this work spread all over UT and Austin,” Metcalfe says. “Now we can be the initiator of bigger conversations.” And Metcalfe certainly has the eclectic résumé to start those conversations: before becoming a food historian, she was a farmer and a management consultant, once even training as a butcher.
Though it may seem surprising that the Food Lab is housed in the School of Architecture, Metcalfe says that link is actually intuitive. The architecture school’s Center for Sustainable Development takes an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability, from ecology to policy and design. Metcalfe stresses that the Food Lab has no policy agenda, other than to be a magnet for ideas and entrepreneurship. When she started holding open office hours last semester, she says, the sheer number and variety of people who showed up was astounding.
“We had faculty and staff, community people, and students, including engineers. Lots of engineers,” she says. “There’s an incredible amount of energy at the student level. Everyone can relate to food—and it’s a good moment.”
Edwards’ talk at the Food Lab conference last week ended with a good moment, too: audience members sampled breathable food in the form of Aeroshot, Edwards’ “whiffable” snacks that are sold in 20,000 stores. “This is the first massive whiff experience in the history of Central Texas,” he joked as attendees held the little gadgets, which look like stylish asthma inhalers, to their lips. As everyone breathed in, the room filled with nervous laughter, coughing, and an almost tangible sense of enthusiasm.
Photos: a vintage poster from an exhibition created by conference panelist Cory Bernat; Food Lab founder and director Robyn Metcalfe. Photos courtesy David Heron and Robyn Metcalfe.