Playing with Food

University of Texas Food Lab hosts innovative competition to reimagine global food systems

University of Texas Food Lab hosts innovative competition

Photo by UT Food Lab/ utfoodlab.com
Submissions for UT Food Lab close on September 30.

In recent years, Austin has become an epicenter for all things culinary, and a group of savvy academics are finally putting that innovation to great use. The recently founded Food Lab, a program that researches food system issues and ideas at the University of Texas at Austin, has introduced its first Food Lab Challenge —  an exciting business competition that invites teams from all walks of life and disciplines to imagine and produce a product or service that could benefit some of the food industry's most hotly debated issues.

"Essentially, we're looking at food across a variety of disciplines and envisioning a solid food system for the future," says Robyn Metcalfe, director of the Food Lab. "We see this as an opportunity to introduce some amazing ideas that could change the way we think about — and approach — our global food system."

 "Austin is on everyone's map when it comes to food. With something like the Food Lab, we can put influential ideas into action," says Director Robyn Metcalfe

 Partnering with Startup Aggieland and The Borlaug Institute, this year's Food Lab Challenge encourages individuals to think outside the box and imagine products or services that innovate the world's food system and its supply chain. Both supporting organizations will promote and assist the Food Lab by providing mentors and judges for the competition.

But the competition is just one part of the Food Lab's upcoming projects. Also in the works is a documentary film and a collaborative blog, which features writers from the world's most notable culinary cities, such as Taiwan. "These individuals will be able to discuss how food travels in cities and influences their respective communities," Metcalfe says.

In its inaugural year, the competition invites teams of four to five members to develop a business plan and supporting materials that take on one of the culinary world's four main pillars: No. 1: Inputs and Production; No. 2: Processing, Packaging and Safety; No. 3: Storage and Distribution; and No. 4: Healthy Eating and Food Education.

An impressive aspect of the competition is its open-mindedness to different concepts and ideas. "We're really agnostic to the who, what, when, where, why or how of the ideas," Metcalfe says. "When you put restrictions like anti-tech or anti-organic on the ideas, you naturally limit the creativity. We think by opening up the competition with no restrictions, it allows the best ones to float to the top." Team winners in each category will be awarded $5,000 and qualify for the top prize of $10,000.

And while winning is certainly a motivation for the participants, Metcalfe believes that the ideas introduced during the competition have the power to change both our local and global food systems. "The outcome I'd love is to see some of the ideas receiving additional resources or even funding," she says. "Austin is on everyone's map when it comes to food. With something like the Food Lab, we can put influential ideas into action."

Registration for the Food Lab Competition closes on September 30, and finalists will be notified on November 1. Contestants will then be paired with mentors to strengthen their business plans and prototypes until the awards ceremony, which takes place on February 14, 2015. 

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For more information on the Food Lab Challenge and for registration details, please visit the Food Lab website.